The first season of The Mandalorian has drawn to a close, and more than a few Disney+ subscribers are taking a look around and deciding whether they want to continue subscribing to the streaming service.
Original Marvel content isn’t expected to launch until late in the year, and Star Wars fans will have to wait even longer for new shows (not counting the final season of The Clone Wars, which airs in February). Jeff Goldblum is charming and quite possibly at his point of peak cultural impact, but he can hardly carry the entire platform alone. With its most anticipated original programming drying up, Disney+ is going to have to survive for a while on the fundamental strength of its content library and interface.
The strange thing is that from a functionality standpoint, the Disney+ platform hardly seems designed to compete with established giants like Netflix and Hulu. It’s hard to imagine the biggest media conglomerate in history rushing an incomplete app out the door, but that impression is hard to avoid when you look at what they launched with.
Subscribers who watched two episodes of a TV show would have to find it all over again upon their next viewing session, since there was nothing as rudimentary as a “Continue Watching” list. Progress indicators were nowhere to be found when browsing, and reports began filtering in of incorrectly ordered episodes and poorly cropped and edited footage. Most noticeably, personalized recommendations exist on Disney+ but seem like an afterthought compared to Netflix’s dynamically generated categories.
Disney is already hard at work fixing problems and refining the functionality of the service, and we might expect to see Disney+ begin to more closely resemble its peers as it evolves. But what does this bumpy launch tell us about the parent company’s priorities? Did they really screw up at something as basic as releasing an adequately usable app? Or are their priorities so different from their competitors’ that our expectations for streaming content don’t apply?
It’s A Small World (After All)
On the surface, Disney+ might look analogous to established streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. But there are a few significant differences that suggest Disney might be playing by different rules. The first of these is size: Despite its status as a media juggernaut, Disney launched an app with considerably less content than what was offered by its peers. One comparison noted that Netflix fielded about 4,000 movies and 1,570 television shows through its app in 2018, while Disney+ launched with only 500 movies and 7,000 TV episodes.
Because Netflix features such a vast array of content, most of which will be of little interest to the typical viewer, it is essential for the service’s success to dynamically customize the interface to each user’s preferences. Disney+ offers not only less material, but also a narrower range of genres catering to a smaller (or at least less differentiated) set of audiences. It is simple to navigate even without algorithmically generated lists. Instead, Disney+ relies heavily on a rational structure, with five content “buckets” each containing a series of human-curated lists.
The expectation that Disney+ will feature more or less the same structure every time you look at it could actually prove to be an advantage, because it can give viewers the feeling of navigating a known territory instead of choosing from selections seemingly generated by magic. The impression that this is a “clean” interface has featured in some of the positive feedback it has received. As long as the content is curated skillfully, Disney+ has the chance to win over viewers with a sense of familiarity and comfort.
I’ve Got No Strings
The fact that Disney content skews toward younger viewers—and older viewers in the mood to revisit their childhood—offers a clue as to why recommendations come across as low priority in the app design.
Adults browsing Netflix are interested in finding content that they haven’t watched but that they trust to appeal to their tastes. But young children, as any parent can attest, love watching the same thing over and over. They also aren’t particularly discriminating when it comes to checking out an unfamiliar title; after all, they possess neither a sense of their own highly individual tastes nor a belief that their time is precious. That means that nailing the recommendation doesn’t have the same payoff with kids that it does with adults.
The previous point about Disney+ presenting viewers with a comfortably navigable landscape applies especially strongly to children. Not only is this territory familiar and easy to explore, but it is also safe. YouTube is generally the most popular media platform for children of all ages, but it raises concerns for parents with its potential to expose kids to inappropriate material. Disney+ offers exclusively family-friendly content, with its more adult-oriented material relegated to Hulu. So even though the service offers the typical parental controls, they aren’t particularly necessary to keep kids away from disturbing images and adult themes.
Mine, Mine, Mine
A final factor that distinguishes Disney+ from its larger competitors is the simple fact that it streams nothing but Disney-owned content. When viewers sign on to Netflix or Hulu, they may be in the mood to watch a specific genre, or they may be depending upon the streaming service to make a good suggestion for them. When they access Disney+, it is because they want to watch Disney content, in much the same way that they only sign on to Shudder with the intention to watch horror movies.
While the other streaming giants play the role of distributors, forced to cater to the widest possible range of tastes, Disney+ can leverage a much greater degree of engagement from the moment that viewers open the app. The brand, or family of brands, provides the biggest draw.
This is why the five content buckets that comprise the backbone of the Disney+ content structure make for such remarkably effective navigation tools. Anyone who bothers to access the service in the first place likely has a specific genre experience in mind. Whether they want a classic Disney cartoon, a Star Wars film, or a nature documentary, the interface allows them to start browsing the right kind of content within seconds. Who needs machine learning when you can instantly connect a Marvel fan with all the Marvel content they can imagine?
Just Around the Riverbend
Disney’s relentless efforts to become the biggest and best (and eventually maybe the only?) media corporation in the world have made it easy to assume they would shoot for a streaming service that would outperform all rivals. Instead, they seem to have opted for something simple, comforting, and clearly defined: a little playground in which subscribers can explore and celebrate the Disney brand.
It’s valid to wonder whether viewers will jump ship while original programming dries up for a while. But what Disney+ strives to be is not another subscription service, but a place to feel at home.
Photo: Walt Disney Studios