Netflix CEO Reed Hastings Was Right About Disney+

The so-called "Netflix killer" is anything but.

Jeremy Bowman
Jeremy Bowman
Apr 14, 2019 at 5:17PM
Consumer Goods

Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) shareholders should breathe a sigh of relief.

The great unveiling has come for Disney+ (NYSE:DIS), the new streaming service from the House of Mouse, but it looks like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was right all along about the potential Disney rival. This is no mortal threat, or even much of a thorn in the side for the leading streamer.

In case you missed it, here are key facts about the new Disney+ service.

  • It's set to launch Nov. 12.
  • The service will feature content from Disney Studios, Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios, and National Geographic; it will also offer 30 seasons of The Simpsons, and family-friendly movies from Twentieth Century Fox, like The Princess Bride.
  • Disney+ will cost $6.99 per month, or $69.99 per year; Disney has hinted at a bundled package including Hulu and ESPN+.

With a price like that, Disney+ looks set to undercut Netflix, whose most popular package now costs $13 per month. But as Hastings has said before, there's plenty of room for both services to be successful.

Hands holding a tablet streaming a movie

Image source: Getty Images.

Hastings' thoughts on Disney

Time and again, the Netflix chief has been asked on earnings calls for his thoughts about the upcoming Disney streaming service, as well as his concerns about other competitors. But he always bats the questions away, downplaying the threats.

Here's what he said over a year ago after Disney's bid for Fox went public:

Then they're also putting together a Disney direct-to-consumer service, which we think will be very successful because Disney has superstrong brands. And so, we'll see. We don't see it as a threat to us any more than Hulu has been, but it's a great opportunity for them.

Hastings even went on to pay Disney a compliment, saying he'd subscribe to its new service.

More recently, Hastings said in an earnings letter to shareholders:

We earn consumer screen time, both mobile and television, away from a very broad set of competitors. We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO ... Our focus is not on Disney+, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) or others, but on how we can improve our experience for our members.

The Netflix co-founder has always been something of the Big Lebowski of Silicon Valley CEOs, regularly coming off as superchill and unbothered. But he's got a point here, and he's been right many times before, especially about the evolution of the streaming industry.

There's a vast sea of entertainment options, and a single competitor is only likely to make a difference at the margins.

What's also notable is that Hastings believes Disney+ will be successful, but he doesn't think it will affect his company. After the great reveal, you can see why.

There are so many differences between the two services that they aren't really direct competitors. Disney+, for example, is family-focused. Netflix wants to have something for everyone, and its original content leans toward the kind of edgier subjects that tend to become bait for the Oscar and Emmy awards. Disney has clearly-defined verticals for content creation from its existing studios, while Netflix is fielding content from all around the world in multiple languages, from a wide range of creators, including both scripted and nonscripted programming. That also means that Netflix won't be competing directly with Disney+ for content, the way it does with HBO, Hulu, and Amazon.

Additionally, though quality of content matters more than quantity, Netflix will have the much bigger and diverse library of the two services -- about two-thirds of Disney+'s 7,500 TV episodes will come directly from the Disney Channel. Netflix is also planning to spend much more on original content: Disney promised $2 billion in originals spending by 2024; Netflix, on the other hand, dropped $13 billion in cash on content just last year, with an increasing portion dedicated to originals.

Are the streaming wars real?

Financial writers (myself included) love a story about competition. Plenty of ink has been spilled on grocery wars, cola wars, and the "streaming wars." Setting up a story like that creates drama, and makes it easy for the reader to understand what's happening.

But in the case of streaming, is it really accurate to call it a battle in the traditional business sense? Often these services are complements for each other, rather than substitutes. Plenty of Americans subscribe to multiple streaming services, just as a lot of people pay for both a Costco membership and Amazon Prime. A 2016 survey even found that Amazon Prime subscribers were more likely to subscribe to Netflix than non-Prime members.

There's a big difference between that competition and those involving, say, Uber and Lyft in ridesharing, or Apple and Android in smartphones: There, the services and products are clear substitutes, not complements. If you want an app-based ride across town, you're probably choosing either Uber or Lyft, not both. Similarly, if you're in the market for a new smartphone, you're likely to buy either an iPhone or an Android.

Consumers can subscribe to both Disney+ and Netflix...and plenty will.


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Disney+ could actually be good for Netflix

There's one business that Disney+ is a clear negative for, and that's traditional pay TV. If subscribing to the Disney Channel was one of the main reasons you paid for cable or satellite TV, you're much more likely to cut the cord now.

Despite all the talk about cord-cutting in recent years, there are still about 91 million subscribers to satellite and cable TV. The decline has been slow -- Hastings predicted in 2015 that the transition would take at least 20 years -- but there are still many more subscribers to satellite and cable services than to Netflix, which finished last year with 58.5 million paid domestic subscribers.

While streaming services do compete against one another, they also compete against the traditional cable bundle; the more consumers who can be convinced to cut the cord, the more of their entertainment dollars become available for streaming services like Netflix. In that sense, If Disney+ and ESPN+ hasten the cord-cutting process, Netflix could actually be a winner.

With Netflix's first-quarter earnings due out on April 16, we'll likely hear more of Hastings' thoughts on the new Disney offering, but the Netflix chief was right to downplay the threat from the beginning. In the vast global entertainment universe, both services can thrive.