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Will a "Less Is More" Approach Work for Disney+?

By Stephen Lovely - Feb 17, 2020 at 9:45AM

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The media giant insists there's no post-"Mandalorian" letdown.

Walt Disney's (DIS 2.55%) Disney+ streaming service has gotten off to a very impressive start. It was a smash from day one, beating growth projections on its way to a subscriber count of 28.6 million as of the company's first-quarter 2020 earnings call. Disney+ appears to be a strong contender in what is now a very competitive subscription video on demand (SVOD) scene.

With so many different SVOD services out there, observers are keeping an eye on exclusive content offerings -- especially new original content. But this is one area where Disney+ lags far behind some competitors, most notably Netflix (NFLX 0.04%). Is Disney's slow-and-steady approach to new releases a problem?

A smiling couple on a couch watches TV.

Image source: Getty Images

No more Mando

To be fair, Disney has been putting real effort -- and valuable IP -- into its original content. It has planned out shows featuring characters like Marvel's Hawkeye and Loki far in advance. But many of those series are still a long ways off, and the only original that Disney+ brought to the table at the time of its launch -- the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian -- wrapped up its first season long ago. The only new original to hit the service since then has been Diary of a Future President, a relatively minor release compared to the Star Wars and Marvel material that Disney+ is building its whole brand on.

Mid-February will at least see the arrival of a continuation: the latest season of animated Star Wars show The Clone Wars. But putting aside The Clone Wars, no major debuts are expected until the arrival of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a Marvel Studios series slated for release in August (some other 2020 releases don't have specific dates attached yet).

That has some investors worried about this interim period. Why will subscribers stand by Disney+ rather than head for Netflix and other competitors, where new original content is readily available?

Quality, quantity, and perhaps a little magic

Disney CEO Bob Iger is unworried. On the first-quarter earnings call, he had this to say:

We knew when we launched that we were launching with a modest amount of original programming and that it would build over time. So as we look ahead, we're really comfortable with volume -- a product that we are creating and don't really feel that there's much that we have to adjust to right now. [...] So we've got, I think, a great blend, and don't feel a real need to adjust, and I think the best thing about it all is that the decision that we made to go with quality and not just volume is working.

Translation: Disney+ doesn't need to churn out lots of content in the way that Netflix and other rivals do. Disney+ is focused on quality, says Iger, rather than quantity.

It's fair to say that there's only one Walt Disney. The content Disney+ features in its library is iconic, and that's one reason to believe the company can get away with a less-is-more approach to content in general and to original content in particular. It's certainly true that Netflix has drawn fire for a "quantity over quality" approach, which at times seems to govern its original content decisions.

We might also speculate that the sort of content that Disney+ has is better suited to maintain success with a smaller catalog than the sort of content that Netflix has. It's no secret that cinema's most obsessed fans are generally more amenable to watching and rewatching their favorite movies again and again than, say, fans of indie films. Remember that guy who saw Avengers: Endgame more than 100 times in theaters? Star Wars and Marvel are franchises that fans want ready access to in order to rewatch and obsess over, and Disney+ can act as the virtual DVD shelf that makes this possible.

And there's another group that loves rewatching things at least as much as those fans: kids. Among children, a growing "preference for the familiar" often takes the form of a love of repetition. This is healthy, psychologists say: Repetition is great for learning. It's also understandable; among other comforts of familiarity, kids are more likely to actually understand stories if they're seeing them over and over.

For all these reasons, young children are big fans of repeated viewing (and reading, and listening -- as many a "Baby Shark"-weary parent can tell you). Disney's catalog includes more adult and young-adult content than it did back in the '70s or '80s, but a few lightsaber and gun battles shouldn't blind us to the reality that Disney's library trends very young. Pixar movies, animated classics, and other staples of the service are clearly aimed at kids.

Less is more

So does Iger have a point? Is Disney+ uniquely positioned to survive and thrive without constantly adding new content? In a word: yes.

The reasons for Disney's success with a relatively small catalog and slow rollout of original content aren't limited to what we've covered above. But it's clear that Disney+ has some unique advantages, including its highly recognizable IP and its core audiences. These advantages could be just what Disney+ needs in order to keep its subscriber count growing in a competitive streaming era, with or without much new content.

Stephen Lovely owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney and short April 2020 $135 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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