Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years, and has written four books on TV, including The Late Shift and The War for Late Night. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Let’s be honest, streaming TV is great.
Just how great is going to be determined in the coming years because there is more streaming TV to come — much, much more.
Disney is making its grand entrance into streaming on Tuesday. And the big question for me, as I suspect it will be for a sizeable segment of consumers, is simple: Do I need this?
Which implies, of course: Do I want to pay for it? The price is certainly attractive: just $6.99 a month to start (it will likely get more expensive later on). That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, because so much of TV is now asking for my cash, from the top streaming services like Netflix ($12.99 for its standard plan) to the array of sports channels that squeeze me for 5 bucks here, 7 bucks there.
As for the specific streaming section of my budget: Amazon I pay for, but the fee includes the appealing tie-in of free shipping for the products that seem to arrive at my home daily, so the occasional compelling program on the Amazon video roster is a tasty boost.
HBO I have happily paid for over the years because I have enjoyed so many of their outstanding original shows. The upcoming streaming service, HBO Max, has me disposed to remain a customer because HBO’s track record has been so good. If the quality of the programming falls off under pressure to compete with Netflix (and under new management), I might quit at some point. But for now, I’m in.
I have no plans to buy any new Apple devices, so that company’s new streaming service, Apple TV+, needs to stand alone based on the merit of its program offerings. From what I have seen and heard about those so far, those seem both slim and unappealing. I’m thinking I can save my $4.99 per month, for now.
Disney+ though is a tougher call. This is the entertainment powerhouse of my lifetime. I can remember as a kid watching Walt himself introduce shows on the “Wonderful World of Color.” I’ve seen countless Disney movies, including all the classics, from “Pinocchio” and “Mary Poppins” to “Lion King” and “Frozen.”
Well, maybe not ALL the classics: I’m not a big fan of the superhero genre, so the Marvel movies Disney has acquired and made, setting box office records along the way, leave me pretty cold. And space is a frontier I have never been captivated by. So, after the first two “Star Wars” movies I couldn’t care less.
My initial impression of the list Disney+ is offering was that it leaned too heavily toward kiddie fare, space and superhero epics to whet my appetite for more streaming cash outlays. But the monster appeal of the new Disney service is how much of its library of legendary titles the company is making available.
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You’ve got “Bambi,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Davy Crockett,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” “The Sound of Music,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles,” along with all those “Toy Story” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, and on and on. And that’s before you even get to the things that will entice folks with tastes different from mine, like episode upon episode of “X-Men” and “Star Wars.”
One might say that compared to other entertainment companies: No one can pitch like Disney, bewitch like Disney, and, in a hit-title match, have hits like Disney.
All of that means that much of the Disney+ library will be irresistible for generations of kids and young people who have not previously had the chance to experience this treasure trove of entertainment. Still, I see some drawbacks.
The TV show lineup, for example, seems surprisingly thin. With one notable and huge exception, “The Simpsons,” there are few titles (“That’s So Raven”?) on the list that bring with them the kind of avid, episode-bingeing viewing that Netflix engenders with popular favorites like “The Office” and “Friends” (shows Netflix is losing, incidentally, to other streaming services). Maybe some more enticing Disney product from the ABC studio library will be added later.
And what seems crucial now in the increasing competition of streaming services is finding a standout, new series that makes so much noise in the culture — through reviews but chiefly social media — that initially hesitant buyers decide they have to see what the talk is about. The impact of shows like “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon (both Emmy winners) is hard to assess fully, but clearly they inspired customers to check out those services — and maybe stick around month-after-month.
So far Disney+ seems to be counting on one new entry, “The Mandalorian,” to pump up the volume. It’s another Star Wars fable, and those fans will likely be thrilled. But they might have been the first to sign on anyway, because the rest of the canon will be available for multiple more viewings.
I’m going to probably want a wider selection of new offerings, though Disney+ will surely get there. The resources of the company are so vast; the brand is so indelible; and the management is so smart. Bob Iger, the chairman, has enjoyed a run of mastery over the entertainment business like few in show business history. I have known Iger since his first steps into the field, when he took over as the surprising new top entertainment executive at ABC in 1989.
He struck me from the start as low-key, unflappable, measured in his decision-making. Also, significantly ambitious. The latter quality has risen to the fore at Disney, where Iger has pushed the once hyper-careful company toward near-constant expansion, almost always at exactly the right time and in exactly the right areas — like the acquisitions of Marvel and Pixar. The move toward streaming was his instinctive reaction to the steady diminishment of the company’s cash cow, ESPN.
In his current book, “The Ride of a Lifetime,” he wrote that the moves Disney has made toward streaming have been made with the full recognition that the company is “hastening the disruption of our own businesses.”
Given Iger’s recent track record of keeping Disney out front (the studio’s complete domination of the film grosses this year is mind-boggling), it would be folly for even Netflix to dismiss the threat a Disney streaming service poses. Netflix has dominated so thoroughly many consumers identify the company’s brand as the generic equivalent of streaming — much like Kleenex or Xerox.
But that’s not going to last after Disney enters the fray. I may hold off on Disney+ until an original show emerges on the service to pique my interest the way “Mindhunter” and “Unbelievable” have on Netflix, but I fully expect to be paying it eventually.
It ain’t no passing craze.