As the world fixates on Disney stealing Netflix's subscribers, Disney Plus' launch will give Netflix something else to seize upon: fresh ideas.
Joan E. SolsmanFormer Senior Reporter
Joan E. Solsman was CNET's senior media reporter, covering the intersection of entertainment and technology. She's reported from locations spanning from Disneyland to Serbian refugee camps, and she previously wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. She bikes to get almost everywhere and has been doored only once.
ExpertiseStreaming video, film, television and music; virtual, augmented and mixed reality; deep fakes and synthetic media; content moderation and misinformation onlineCredentials
Three Folio Eddie award wins: 2018 science & technology writing (Cartoon bunnies are hacking your brain), 2021 analysis (Deepfakes' election threat isn't what you'd think) and 2022 culture article (Apple's CODA Takes You Into an Inner World of Sign)
Disney Plus may be the biggest direct challenge Netflix has faced since the DVD-mailer company reinvented itself as the internet's answer to TV. But Reed Hastings, Netflix's CEO, says he isn't sweating the competition -- he can't wait to get his hands on it.
"I'm not saying we worry about them, we admire them," he said at the Dealbook conference in New York last week. "I'll subscribe, they've got great shows."
On the war wagon of new Netflix rivals barreling toward the company, however, Disney is the one toting the most firepower. Disney realigned its entire company to make a gigantic bet on streaming, including forsaking the hundreds of millions of dollars Netflix itself was paying Disney to stream the company's blockbuster movies.
The affection is mutual, at least publicly. "Most of us are subscribers to Netflix," Kevin Mayer, head of Disney's direct-to-consumer and international businesses, said Friday during a press briefing. "We admire them greatly. They've created this market that we're now participating in, so they're fabulous."
While Hastings' admiration for Disney is easy to chalk up to an executive playing cool, he slipped in an admission about Netflix's keenest interest in the Disney Plus launch: "Disney is the one that we really have the most to learn from," he said.
Much of the attention in the so-called streaming wars is fixated on how many Netflix subscribers these upstarts will steal. But the streaming giant is getting a new crop of competitors that will help it learn what else it needs to offer.
Netflix, without question, dominates streaming-video subscriptions.
The company expects to end the year with more than 165 million subscribers around the world. That's more than five times the size of Hulu by subscribers. Even if Netflix lost half its subscribers in the next five years, it might still be beating Disney Plus. Disney predicts Disney Plus will take five years to reach 60 million to 90 million members.
Watch this: Disney Plus is here! What do we think? (The Daily Charge, 11/12/2019)
But rather than picking off subscribers from Netflix, the raft of new rivals may have a much easier time hoovering up cord cutters.
Cord cutting -- when consumers forsake traditional pay TV like cable or satellite, often for streaming alternatives -- "is uglier than ever before," MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson said last month in his analysis of pay-TV companies' recent fortunes.
Four of the biggest pay-TV distributors -- Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter -- lost 1.74 million video subscribers in the third quarter, in what Nathanson referred to as "bloodshed." Based on that plunge, he predicted that the rate at which consumers cut the cord on traditional pay-TV in the current quarter would be the worst it's ever been.
For sure, Netflix will have difficulty keeping its subscriber growth rate as high as it's been as these new services launch. Especially in the US, where most of these rivals will be most competitive quickest, Netflix has already had difficulty keeping up its growth: It already had the first dip in US membership during the second quarter this year.
But the fixation on Netflix's subscriber growth often means losing sight of Netflix's head start. And while his emerging competitors play catchup, Hastings seems ready to watch for what Netflix needs to swipe from their playbooks.
Even though Netflix's sprawling catalog covers a wide gamut of programming, the company's content mostly sticks close to tried-and-true formats from regular television. The flexibility of ad-free streaming means that Netflix originals may not follow standard TV storytelling pacing. But Netflix's series, movies and specials are generally cut from the same cloth.
However, in the Netflix firehose of programming, a few titles come down the pipe that toy with the norm.
Many people are familiar with the interactive shows that Netflix has been experimenting with in the last two years, like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. It's already been experimenting with different formats beyond the TV series and movies it's best known for.
Less well-known are series that bring Netflix closer to the realm of shorter-form video. Special, a comedy about a young gay man with cerebral palsy, has an average episode runtime of 14 minutes. Love, Death & Robots is a volume of animated shorts with episodes as short as six minutes.
Meanwhile, Netflix's coming competitors will be arriving with some programming types that Netflix has yet to play around with much.
Disney Plus, for example, will not only stream Frozen 2 next year, it will also release a docu-series about the making of Disney's sequel to the 2013 animated blockbuster. HBO Max will even include downloadable podcasts focused on titles like HBO's miniseries Chernobyl, and it will experiment with influencer-style vertical video postings in the HBO Max app from talent recommending things to watch. The company gave the example of Zac Efron talking about why The Exorcist is one of his favorite movies.
While Netflix has toyed with Talking Dead-style aftershows for its retro sci-fi hit Stranger Things and its hip-hop competition series Rhythm + Flow, the company hasn't done a lot of behind-the-scenes programming as part of the service itself. What it does create, Netflix usually puts on YouTube.
HBO Max even said it would experiment with live programming, something Netflix has steered away from for years.
As these and other services launch and begin their race to catch up with their biggest rival, Hastings has already made the Netflix game plan clear: "We learn. We observe. We watch them."
Originally published Nov. 11. Update, Nov. 12: Adds comment from Disney's Kevin Mayer.