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Disney Plus battled Apple TV Plus in 2019's first streaming war, and won big

Apple had no match for Baby Yoda.

baby-yoda-news-door-cb-1

The Child, better known as Baby Yoda, has been the breakout star of Disney Plus' The Mandalorian. 

Disney/Lucasfilm

One after another, media and tech giants are hurling themselves into a battle for your streaming-TV dollars. Last month ushered in the first clash: Apple TV Plus versus Disney Plus. The king of Hollywood and the smartphone profit king both launched their own services within days of each other. 

By all early measures, Disney trounced Apple

These battles are more than just high-priced jousts among corporate giants. The streaming wars will determine not only who shapes the future of television as streaming becomes the norm, but also how many services you'll have to pay for to access your favorite shows. With more than 150 million global subscribers, Netflix dominates streaming by miles. But a host of emerging competitors have spent the year pouring billions of dollars into their own services in a bid to become the next Baby Yoda sensation. 

And they're all launching within seven months of each other. 

Apple was first to the battle lines with its streaming Apple TV Plus, which launched Nov. 1 with nine titles and a free-year promo for the millions of people who purchased one of its gadgets since the fall. Less than two weeks later, Disney Plus rolled out with a huge catalog of shows, movies and originals -- including many of the Disney blockbuster movies that Netflix has been streaming since 2016. 

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Next year, Comcast's NBCUniversal will launch its streaming service, Peacock, in April with a slate of original programming and a library of shows like The Office. That's the same month as the debut of Quibi, a mobile streaming service backed by all the major Hollywood studios and focused on shows featuring big-name talent serialized into bite-size morsels. 

And then in May, AT&T's HBO Max will open its war chest packed with Friends, Big Bang Theory, Game of Thrones and Watchmen plus its own lineup of originals, set to hit in May.

But the first skirmish pitted Disney against Apple. And Disney Plus ran circles around Apple TV Plus, according to early indicators.

Baby Yoda versus Baba Voss and the Dickheads

Period piece Dickinson and sci-fi epic See are two of Apple's shows that generated an online fan following. 

Apple

Baby Yoda may be Disney's next merchandising goldmine, but make no mistake -- the pint-sized puppet has vaulted the popularity of The Mandalorian overall. Disney Plus' marquee original show, which also benefits from the franchise heft of Star Wars, seems to far outstrip even Apple's biggest show in popularity.

According to one researcher, The Mandalorian became the most popular TV series in the US soon after Disney Plus launched. Parrot Analytics uses a proprietary metric measuring online expressions of demand. It found The Mandalorian's popularity peaked (at least, so far) soon after the series' third episode, when the titular bounty hunter battled to free Baby Yoda from Werner Herzog and a compound of Stormtroopers. 

Apple's most popular title, even at its height, drummed up a fraction of that demand. See, a post-apocalyptic epic starring Aquaman's Jason Momoa as blind tribal leader Baba Voss, generated fewer than 40 million daily expressions of interest at its peak soon after its season finale, compared with The Mandalorian's apex at 140 million. 

See's finale did push the show into Parrot's Top 10 ranking of online originals, the first time an Apple TV Plus title made it onto the weekly chart. It hit No. 7 that week. But the Mandalorian has sat on top of this ranking for the past three weeks, knocking out Netflix's Stranger Things after five months in the No. 1 spot. 

Parrot measures "Demand Expressions" about a show, which tracks online expressions of interest like social media comments or peer-to-peer file downloads.

Parrot Analytics

The Mandalorian has also topped the rankings of ListenFirst, another data analytics firm, and no Apple TV series came close. ListenFirst measures online buzz as an "interest score," as well as the size of a title's digital following, called a fan footprint.

The Mandalorian has 10 times the interest score of See, Apple's next most popular show in ListenFirst's measurement. The Morning Show, Apple's marquee drama with Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston, comes closest in fan footprint. 

Dickinson, Apple's edgy teen comedy set in the 1850s, was the only Apple series that the company premiered with Netflix's binge model, releasing its full season of episodes at launch. That led to a flurry of interest at the outset among the show's newfound fans, calling themselves Dickheads, which might explain its third-largest fan footprint among Apple's shows. 

Disney Plus' teen-focused original -- High School Musical: The Musical: The Series -- has double the interest score of Dickinson.

"Interest score" measures a show's buzz, while "fan footprint" estimates its digital following. 

Data by ListenFirst/table by CNET

The Mandalorian also dominated the weekly Top 100 Most-Watched Shows list by Reelgood, which operates a streaming services hub and catalog guide for 2 million monthly users. The Mandalorian has been the most-watched show on Reelgood's list since it debuted on Nov. 12. 

From Apple, See came closest in Reelgood's rankings, hitting its peak at No. 6.  Servant -- the creepy M. Night Shyamalan thriller series -- had its best placement at No. 8, followed by The Morning Show at No. 11. But Dickinson barely made the Top 100, reaching only as high as No. 89. 

Plus versus Plus

But beyond the popularity of original shows offered by Disney and Apple, there's the demand for the services themselves to consider. 

Disney Plus was 2019's top trending Google search term, beating out both Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones.

And Disney itself provided a single snapshot of its subscribers. After a launch day plagued by disruptions because of high demand, Disney disclosed it signed up more than 10 million accounts. To put that in context, standalone streaming service HBO Now took nearly three years to reach half that number. 

Apple, however, has stayed silent about the performance of Apple TV Plus so far. The company didn't respond to a message seeking comment, and Disney declined to comment beyond the 10 million figure it already released. 

But outside analysts have made their own appraisals. IMA Research estimated Apple TV Plus collected 1.1 million subscribers in its first week, compared with Disney Plus' 15 million. Wall Street researcher Cowen estimated Disney Plus membership ballooned to about 24 million subscribers by the end of November, roughly two weeks after launch, in the US alone. 

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The Morning Show is Apple TV Plus's marquee drama, and the only program between both Apple and Disney's services to be meaningfully generating award nominations so far. 

Apple

Amir Ghodrati, a director of market insights at mobile analytics provider App Annie, said Apple TV averaged 3 million weekly active users on iPhones in the US both in the four weeks before and following the launch of Apple TV Plus. (Apple doesn't have an Android version of its app.) By comparison, Disney Plus averaged 13 million weekly active users on iPhones and Android phones combined in the US in the four weeks after launch.

"This suggests that Apple TV Plus has been a benefit for existing users of the app," Ghodrati said. 

Awards, so far, have been the one area where Apple has distinguished itself versus Disney. The Morning Show was nominated for three Golden Globe awards, including best drama series, as well as three Screen Actors Guild nominations. (The crown jewels in television awards, the Emmys, won't release nominations until July.)

Disney Plus originals have mostly been no-shows in nominations so far. Togo, a Disney Plus adventure movie starring Willem Dafoe, set to premiere Friday, has been nominated for a Writers Guild Award, but that's it. 

Perhaps the TV award season will be Apple's time for an all-out assault in the streaming wars. Or maybe HBO Max or Peacock will emerge as formidable foes. One thing's certain -- these battles over your TV dollars have only just begun.