As Disney Plus turns one, the House of Mouse’s earnings reiterate how crucial streaming is

Disney is still facing unprecedented challenges in a number of its biggest divisions, including theme parks, but its fourth quarter earnings report highlights an area that hasn’t stopped growing: streaming.

On the whole, Disney’s Q4 revenue was better than expected, earning $14.7 billion as opposed to the $14.2 billion expected. A big chunk of that came from Disney’s streaming division, which continues to grow, now boasting just over 120 million subscribers across all its services worldwide. The return of sports also helped generate advertising revenue in its media networks division. It was the parks, experiences, and consumer products division, however, that continued to flail, dropping 61 percent year over year. With Disney’s final movies moved off the calendar year for 2020, there’s not much revenue coming in from Studios, either. Overall revenue was down 23 percent year over year.

In the last several weeks, Disney announced a major reorganization meant to prioritize streaming; shifted its next big Pixar release, Soul, to a Disney Plus-exclusive title; and is preparing for a major streaming-focused investor day on December 10th that will include more information about the launch of Disney’s new international streaming service, Star. Disney is publicly prioritizing its direct-to-consumer division under CEO Bob Chapek, and major shareholders like Dan Loeb are publicly asking Disney to go in even more on streaming. As Guggenheim analyst Michael Morris wrote in a note, Disney is making “streaming its primary mechanism for monetization.”

Today also just happens to be the anniversary of Disney Plus.

It’s easy for Disney to celebrate its position in the direct-to-consumer marketplace. Disney Plus has seen unprecedented growth, skyrocketing from 10 million subscribers within its first 24 hours to more than 73.7 million now. It’s outpaced nearly all of its competitors, save Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — the latter of which has the advantage of being tied to Amazon’s retail division.

Disney Plus’ first year was an incredible success. The company’s streaming bundle has also driven growth across its other platforms, with Hulu’s subscribers increasing to 36.6 million and ESPN Plus up to 10.3 million. Streaming isn’t a sprint, though; it’s a marathon. The bigger question is how does Disney keep this momentum going? How does it stop people from canceling their subscriptions and giving their attention to other competitors like Netflix and HBO Max or free video platforms like TikTok and YouTube? Right now, the number of people canceling their Disney Plus subscriptions is just below the industry average, according to data from Antenna Analytics, but Disney has to find ways to ensure its growth continues.

Two of Disney’s biggest issues are delivering a more consistent output of shows and movies and offering a much more diverse content lineup. The first is easier to fix. Production on series and films designated for Disney Plus has resumed. Other highly anticipated series like WandaVision will help kick off the New Year, giving people currently opening Disney Plus for The Mandalorian a reason to stick around. And Disney is spending time figuring out exactly how to keep Disney Plus feeling fresh. That may include asking studio heads to reallocate a film or show meant for theatrical release or network TV to Disney Plus as an exclusive.

The more challenging hurdle Disney has to face is figuring out how to find subscribers in audiences who aren’t interested in Star Wars or Marvel. Disney Plus’ biggest spike in subscribers didn’t come from The Mandalorian or Mulan — it came from Hamilton.

Data from Antenna Analytics looking at movies and TV shows that drove sign ups on Disney Plus.
Image: Antenna

Chapek told Disney employees in an all-hands at the time that Hamilton’s audience was important because it represented a group of subscribers who were different from the company’s usual customers. Disney needs to find more Hamilton moments to keep non-Disney fans subscribing, and having a substantial library offering of things that will interest them — not just Disney classics — that will keep them there after they’ve finished watching a movie or TV show.

Several of Disney’s departments have a long road ahead of them. Disneyland is unlikely to open anytime soon, and more parks around the world may face shutdowns (like in Paris) as cases rise. Disney’s Studios business is reliant on movie theatres returning to some semblance of normalcy, which is, in turn, reliant on people feeling comfortable in a movie theater again. That might not happen until after a vaccine is out. While Disney’s Media Networks division is seeing some return in advertisement, people are still cutting their cable packages. It’s a trend that won’t slow down.

Much of Disney’s future is uncertain — streaming is the one thing that’s not.

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