At first, it seemed like Disney (NYSE:DIS) could do no wrong when it came to its Disney+ streaming video offering. The service attracted more than 10 million subscribers by the end of its first day of programming when it debuted on Nov. 12, 2019.
Those numbers continued to skyrocket. Just five months later, the tally had grown to 50 million. Disney+ ended its first year of operation with 73.7 million paying subscribers. And it closed out the company's fiscal 2021 third quarter on July 3 with 116 million subscribers.
Now, however, Disney+ is facing several headwinds that are slowing its growth.
Subscriber growth has slowed to a crawl
At the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference earlier this week, Disney CEO Bob Chapek revealed that Disney+ growth has slowed significantly, and that its global paid subscribers were going to climb by "low single-digit millions" during the current quarter. For context, Disney+ added 12.4 million new subscribers last quarter and analysts had been estimating it would add as many as 10 million in this one.
Chapek was quick to point out that lumpiness in subscriber growth is to be expected. "The quarter-to-quarter business is not linear," he said. "What we are finding out, as you've seen from our last several quarters in terms of our earnings, is that these numbers tend to be a lot noisier than a straight line."
Pandemic-related production delays
Another stumbling block Disney+ is facing is the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. due to the now-dominant Delta variant. The rising rate of new coronavirus cases has slowed some of the company's key content creation efforts.
"Our TV group has hundreds of new programs in production ... but the resurgence of COVID and Delta did impact some of our productions so that we've got a lighter product quarter in Q4 than we might have expected," Chapek told investors.
Chapek also cited difficulties with "mobilizing partners" to launch its Star+ service -- which includes both entertainment and sports content -- in Latin America. Additionally, the India Premier League, a fan favorite and that country's largest cricket league, was suspended for months and only recently resumed play. This all illustrates that coronavirus-related headwinds are a worldwide issue, though they are expected to be relatively short-lived problems for the company.
That's not to say there will be a dearth of new programming. Walt Disney Studios has a robust slate of content currently in production -- 17 series and 61 new movies. At the same time, Disney's TV business has hundreds of programs in the works.
The long-term view
Disney isn't sitting idly by hoping for the best. It will host "Disney+ Day" on Nov. 12 -- the two-year anniversary of the streaming platform's debut -- and as part of the celebration, there will be promotions to attract new subscribers and a surge of content releases.
It's also important to put the platform's current challenges in context. When Disney+ launched, the company said it expected to attract between 60 million and 90 million subscribers by the end of its fiscal 2024. Disney+ currently boasts 116 million subscribers, eclipsing that initial forecast several years early and by a wide margin. As a result, management is now guiding for between 230 million and 260 million Disney+ subscribers by 2024.
Given the fact that Disney+ has already grown far faster than the company's rosiest forecast, these short-term headwinds won't mean much in the grand scheme of things.