Wednesday, February 10, 2021

In Laman's Terms: Disney+ and the value of not being the next Netflix

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

The streaming wars rage on!

Prior to 2020, everyone wanted to be Netflix. Disney+ debuted in November 2019 and plans were already in place to launch HBO Max and Peacock the following year. But nobody could have expected that real-world circumstances would make streaming services more appealing than ever. With the COVID-19 pandemic keeping everyone indoors, suddenly, the wealth of material in your average streaming service proved extra handy. 2020 was a boon year for streaming services, which thrived on the isolated anguish of the general populace. As a result, Disney+ soared to 93 million subscribers just 13 months after launch. Within a little over a year, Disney had already gotten their Netflix knock-off to nearly half of Netflix's subscriber base.

Disney+'s success speaks to how to stand out in the current streaming wars Specifically, the recipe for success in this field isn't to just offer another Netflix.

That might sound strange given how Disney+ is totally mimicking Netflix in key ways. The very field of streaming programming was popularized by Netflix, any venture engaging in this material will live in the shadow of Netflix. But a recent comment from Netflix about how Disney+ doesn't "have any Bridgerton's on the horizon" speaks truth to Disney+'s programming decisions. It's true, Disney+ doesn't have adult-skewing shows like Bridgerton coming down the pipeline. That's the point. Disney+ isn't trying to be Netflix, they're just expanding on the stuff that's made Disney work for a couple decades.

Disney's got a stranglehold on family-friendly projects that appeal to all ages. This has sometimes come about simply due to them producing high-quality movies and other times come about because of overt attempts to snuff out competition in the cradle. Whatever the reasons, Disney has become king at the theatrical film space and that success has been translated over to Disney+. When organizing the programming for this streaming platform, Disney+ took on a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach. Rather than making knock-offs of popular Netflix shows like Stranger Things, the Marvel and Star Wars stuff that worked well on the big screen are now the stars of Disney+.

This alone gives Disney+ a way to stand out in a crowded streaming market. Meanwhile, conversation over The Mandalorian and WandaVision has garnered as much attention as the shows themselves because of another difference between Netflix and Disney+ shows: weekly releases of episodes. Through this method, the shows can stick around in the public consciousness while everyone is firmly on the same page as episodes come out. Netflix shows can generate public conversation (Tiger King, Queen's Gambit, and Bridgerton all did that in the last year) but releasing their programs all at once has led to a lot of shows just vanishing into the ether. They never drum up the kind of watercooler conversation that keeps shows on people's minds. 

Where Netflix zigs, Disney+ zags. Disney+ has managed to become a formidable Netflix competitor by not just trying to recreate what Netlfix was already doing. Going that route would just be repetitive, it would have no value for customers. Of course, carving out your own niche is easy when you've got a brand name like Disney that's been established through decades of pop culture. If you told somebody "Disney is making a streaming service", whatever they imagined would probably look a lot like Disney+. 

By contrast, HBO Max has struggled in the nine months since its debut despite having a similarly well-known brand name. However, here, the familiar name might have been more of a curse than a blessing. People know what HBO means. It's the place where prestige TV shows go, the kind with violence, nudity, and weighty themes you can't see elsewhere. To suddenly swerve and try to expand that to include reality shows, kids' fare, and everything else under the sun is a bold move and one that hasn't quite worked yet. HBO Max is totally trying to be like Netflix by offering everything under the sun. As a result, it actually has a good library of content, but it's also hard to tell what separates it from the pack.

People already have a place where they can get a variety of films and TV shows, it's called Netflix. Trying to turn HBO from a place where you watch prestige programming to Netflix 2.0 is quite odd. The lack of a concrete identity wouldn't be a problem if HBO Max had killer original programming or even just one watercooler show, but unfortunately, HBO Max hasn't had their equivalent to The Mandalorian, The Boys, or The Handmaid's Tale, an original show that can put them on the map. The only major original show HBO Max has put out, though, is The Flight Attendant, which has received positive marks but hasn't become the kind of phenomenon that can make HBO Max stand out.

Through HBO Max's struggles, we see the problems in trying to break into a crowded streaming marketplace. Everyone wants to be like Netflix, but in order to succeed as a 2021 streaming platform, you need to offer more than just being a Netflix knock-off. Given time, HBO Max can still find its footing and secure a major place in the streaming wars.

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