For a few years, at least, the streaming landscape has looked relatively stable: Netflix is on top, and Amazon and HBO are chasing. But a new challenger is waiting in the wings: Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS). Following its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Disney is positioned to make real moves in the streaming market. Here's what we know about Disney's streaming strategy so far.
Where Disney stands in streaming today
Disney's streaming future doesn't begin with a clean slate. The company is already involved in streaming, and its future efforts will build on and incorporate its current streaming portfolio.
Hulu is one of those holdings. Hulu, a joint venture between Disney, 21st Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA), Comcast, and AT&T's WarnerMedia, was founded back in 2007. Originally, Disney, Fox, and Comcast each owned a 30% stake in Hulu, with the remaining 10% being held by WarnerMedia. However, the balance of power at Hulu has changed following Disney's acquisition of 21st Century Fox: Disney will now have a controlling 60% stake in the service.
Disney also owns ESPN+, a stand-alone streaming service that it recently launched under its ESPN brand. ESPN+ does not offer a direct subscription to ESPN's live network television channels -- instead it focuses on online-only live sports broadcasts and on-demand streaming of shows and documentaries like ESPN's popular 30 for 30 series.
Speaking of content, Disney has a lot of it: The company's eponymous movie studio owns Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm. Disney's TV studio, meanwhile, churns out content for Disney-owned network television channels like ABC, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney XD.
Add to all of this the studios that Disney has acquired though 21st Century Fox, which include Fox's major TV and movie studios, and you get a whole lot of content -- but not, for now, a fully owned streaming service to integrate that content into. That brings us to what we know about what Disney will do next.
What we know about Disney's streaming future
Disney has a lot of content to offer, and it isn't keen on letting some other company make money by streaming it. That's why Disney is planning a streaming service of its own. Announced in 2017 and slated to launch in 2019, Disney's as-yet-unnamed streaming service will include Disney and Pixar content. It stands to reason that Fox content will find its way onto the service as well.
The new service will compete with Netflix -- a tall order, given Netflix's domination of the streaming market. But Disney will be the best-positioned company since Amazon -- and perhaps the best-positioned company ever -- to give Netflix a run for its money.
What we don't know about Disney's streaming future
Disney has a controlling stake in Hulu, which offers subscription video on demand and a live TV streaming service called Hulu with Live TV. It has a sports streaming service called ESPN+. And it has a planned Netflix killer scheduled to arrive in 2019. That's what we know about Disney's streaming strategy -- but some questions still remain unanswered.
For starters, what will Disney do with Hulu? Hulu's focus on recently aired TV shows makes it a little different from Netflix, but few would deny that the two are competitors. Presumably, then, Disney's new streaming service -- which is explicitly designed to compete with Netflix -- will also compete with Disney-owned Hulu.
What about live TV? Disney owns a lot of channels, which could give it an inside track to creating a live TV skinny bundle service. But such a service would compete with Hulu's entry into that market, Hulu with Live TV.
A single-channel service is another option. CBS has a stand-alone streaming service called CBS All Access that offers live local CBS streams in some areas. Might a similar service for ABC make sense?
A direct-to-consumer solution for ABC would be one thing. One for ESPN would be quite another. Fans and investors have long hoped to see a direct-to-consumer option for ESPN's network television channels. ESPN+ wasn't it, but might Disney build such a service on the foundation that ESPN+ has given it?
Some of these possibilities are more attractive than others. The thin margins in the skinny bundle market and Hulu's existing skinny bundle offering make multichannel streaming a questionable path, but ESPN's potential future as a stand-alone service is as intriguing as ever.
Disney has a bright future in streaming
Despite a certain amount of overlap between Hulu and Disney's planned on-demand streaming service, there's a lot to like about Disney's streaming strategy. The streaming and content production muscle that Disney has amassed through its acquisition of 21st Century Fox makes it the first company since Amazon to have a real shot at competing with Netflix in the streaming space.
All eyes will be on Disney's Netflix competitor, and rightly so. But observers and investors should keep an eye on Disney's other moves, too. Live streaming -- particularly for ESPN -- could offer more ways for Disney to flex its streaming muscle.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Stephen Lovely owns shares of Amazon, AT&T, and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.