Disney+, Apple TV+, and the State of the Streaming Wars – The Ringer

Disney+, Apple TV+, and the State of the Streaming Wars – The Ringer

Spoiler warning

For months—years even—a new era of television has loomed on the horizon. “Peak TV,” it turns out, was overly optimistic; TV is nowhere close to peaking, and yet the catch-all term for the early 2010s moment spanning the explosion of cable and dawn of Netflix already feels obsolete. “Streaming Wars” seems to be the preferred phrase thus far, though even that has its malcontents. Regardless, as of this month, the new set of power players who will come to define whatever’s starting up is no longer a hypothetical. First came Apple TV+, the computer manufacturer’s foray into original content production; then came Disney+, the ultimate content producer’s pivot to keeping its spoils in house. So many plus signs, so little time!

These dual launches mean the Streaming Wars (apologies to some, but it works for now) are no longer a hypothetical. Instead, they’re a real factor in millions of consumers’ leisure time and budgets, setting a precedent for future efforts and a bar for would-be competitors to beat. We’re far from a definitive verdict on either individual services or the phenomenon they represent; Apple has already ordered second seasons of all four of its debut scripted series, making questions of long-term sustainability a distant concern. But a full week of Disney+ and several weeks of Apple TV+ have already left us with more material takeaways than months upon months of press releases. Here’s the gist of what we’ve learned.

The archive is everything.

The emerging narrative of Apple vs. Disney is as simple as it is fundamentally true: Apple has floundered in its attempts to catch up with more established players like Netflix and Amazon, while Disney has quickly found a foothold. That difference can be traced to any number of factors, from Disney’s decades of experience in mass-marketing entertainment to Apple’s awkward marriage between tech company secrecy and Hollywood flexibility. But per Occam’s razor, it’s probably that Disney is asking for only marginally more money—$6.99 a month to Apple’s $4.99—in exchange for way more stuff, and stuff that people already have an emotional attachment to.

Star Wars show The Mandalorian is getting plenty of attention as a new release. Still, it’s arguably more significant that Disney+ has all the Star Wars films minus The Last Jedi, plus the Clone Wars series and the LEGO Star Wars sub-franchise. The new, live-action Lady and the Tramp is but a footnote to all the animated classics Disney has freshly unleashed from its storied vault, collecting everything from Snow White to Frozen in one easily browsable place. And perhaps nothing speaks to the sheer mass of Disney+ more than all 30-plus seasons of The Simpsons, as iconic a sitcom as there is, becoming but a footnote in the initial press coverage, apart from a brouhaha over aspect ratios. (The Simpsons also feels ever-so-slightly out of whack with Disney’s otherwise consistent family friendliness, but that’s a story for a different bullet point.)

Compared to Apple’s handful each of children’s and adult-oriented shows, plus a nature documentary, Disney seems to offer manifestly more for your buck. A formidable back catalog serves as an interest driver in itself; anecdotally, I see far more peers tweeting about nostalgia trips like Even Stevens and The Princess Diaries than Kristen Bell’s Encore! And it helps retain customers with a wealth of options to explore, where Apple’s might get restless after they finish a binge of Dickinson. As Netflix first demonstrated, streaming is a volume game, making Disney’s age, and therefore extensive track record, much more of an asset than a liability.

Branding is a close second.

Everyone knows what Disney stands for, because Disney has spent close to a century showing us; Disney+ is merely a different kind of delivery device, taking over where the cratering home video market left off. Apple, meanwhile, has been left with the unenviable task of launching both a technical product and a whole identity. The multitasking has proved difficult.

Where Disney can rely on pre-established juggernauts like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Apple has See—its attempt to build a Game of Thrones level of dense mythology from scratch. (It hasn’t gone well.) With time and repetition, the gap between a serious alternate-history drama like For All Mankind and a sudsy melodrama like The Morning Show will theoretically start to look like an attempt to cater to multiple audiences with multiple tastes at once. With a sample size as small as four, however, Apple just looks scattered and hard to sell, especially when most viewers have neither the time nor the inclination to learn a new network’s ins and outs for themselves. Essentially, Apple hasn’t given a clear sense of what, exactly, subscribers would be paying for—and that’s a tough hurdle to overcome.

“Baby Yoda” is fun to say out loud.

Yes, The Mandalorian has exciting action and tactile set design and legit genre cred. But the show’s highly memeable, undisputed breakout character is the 50-year-old entity known only as “the Child,” the bounty-hunting title character’s target turned ward. The internet wasted no time in coming up with an alternative nickname, inspired by the telltale green skin and elfin ears. Baby Yoda has since taken social media by storm, proving two universal truths: Memes are the best marketing, and Disney has mastered the art of weaponizing cuteness. It’s like a porg, but directly related to one of the most iconic characters in popular cinema!

Weekly releases might be making a comeback …

Apple may be relatively lacking in buzz, but every Friday nonetheless brings a new fleet of Morning Show screenshots to the timeline. That’s because, for most of its shows besides Dickinson, Apple opted for a “demi-binge” approach, dropping three episodes to start and reverting to a weekly schedule thereafter. It’s a compromise between full-season drops that tend to compress conversation around a show into a single weekend and the increasingly dated slow drip of conventional broadcast. It also seems to be working, extending the conversation around The Morning Show, and therefore Apple TV+, beyond its initial drop.

The same principle holds true for The Mandalorian, whose pilot premiered along with the rest of Disney+ on November 12 before switching to Fridays for the remainder of its eight-episode first season. While the binge is certainly far from extinct, these new services also acknowledge that a protracted release can drive hype and create something akin to a collective experience, even if viewers are still tuning in on their own time. (That sound you hear is HBO brandishing its Succession Emmy and crowing “I told you so.”) Netflix made bingeing and streaming all but synonymous. Apple and Disney may start to decouple the two.

… but Netflix-style numbers gaming is here to stay.

On Wednesday, Disney commemorated a week of its new product with a press release that read, in its entirety: “Disney+, the highly anticipated streaming service from The Walt Disney Company, has already reached a major milestone, achieving a remarkable 10 million sign-ups since launching.”

That figure is undeniably impressive, even before one figures in the caveats that a non-Disney employee covering the service is obligated to provide. “10 million sign-ups” doesn’t necessarily equate to 10 million paying customers, given that Disney+ enticed users with a one-week free trial; it also doesn’t give any specifics on how those prospective subscribers are spending their time, and on which movies or shows. Even if elaboration is forthcoming, however, it’s likely to be put in similarly vague and flattering terms designed to grab headlines.

We’ve seen all of this before. The streaming era is high on volume, but not in standardized information to reliably measure a platform or series’ success. Netflix notoriously keeps viewership under wraps, both from outside observers and talent who might spin such knowledge into leverage; what few figures it does release are unveiled only sporadically, and with misleading specificity. Disney and Apple are both publicly traded companies, mandating a certain level of financial disclosure. So far, however, Netflix’s attempted successors are following its lead: drop a flashy figure now, dodge follow-ups later. The Streaming Wars may be a departure from TV’s ever-shifting status quo, but some tropes are rapidly becoming a new normal. Much of our context for understanding corporations’ success will now come at corporations’ discretion, from corporations themselves. What could go wrong?

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