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Can a New Bundle Help Disney+ Keep Growing?

By Adam Levy – Nov 25, 2021 at 9:05AM

Key Points

  • Disney disappointed investors with just 2.1 million net subscriber additions for Disney+ last quarter.
  • It's now adding Disney+ and ESPN+ to the Hulu + Live TV service.
  • The move is not without risks, though.

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Here's a look at Disney's latest plan to add millions of new subscribers.

Walt Disney (DIS 1.46%) is looking to recover from a quarter where it added just 2.1 million Disney+ subscribers. The streaming service has become a major focus for investors as the media company is planning to invest heavily in its direct-to-consumer offerings over the next three years before it expects they'll turn a profit. After robust early signups, the 2.1 million net additions last quarter was a big disappointment.

But Disney might add as many as four million new subscribers overnight next month by making a change to its Hulu + Live TV subscription.

The Disney+ logo.

Image source: Walt Disney.

Adding to the cable bundle

Starting next month, Hulu + Live TV subscribers will be asked to pay $5 more per month for their subscription. In return, they'll receive access to Disney+ and ESPN+.

Currently, subscribers can add the rest of the Disney bundle to their Hulu + Live TV subscription for $8 per month. So, anyone currently taking that deal will get a nice price break. However, the subscribers who haven't signed up for the Disney bundle will be forced to take it whether they want it or not.

The move is similar to how Disney operates its cable networks. Pay-TV subscribers pay about $9 per month to Disney just because their cable bundle has ESPN in it. That's regardless of whether they watch ESPN or not. It's more lucrative for Disney to force distributors to carry the network for all subscribers than it is to sell the network directly to only those who watch it.

Searching for subscribers

Hulu + Live TV had four million subscribers at of the end of the company's fiscal fourth quarter. While some of those likely already subscribe to Disney+ or ESPN+, Disney will instantly add millions of subscribers for the services with the upcoming change.

Disney is trying other tactics to add new signups for Disney+ as well, including a promotion for new and existing subscribers to pay just $1.99 for one month of the service for its anniversary earlier this month. That, combined with the Hulu move, may be a sign subscriber growth didn't pick up much in October. That said, management warned during the fourth-quarter earnings call that subscriber growth may not get back to normal until the second half of fiscal 2022.

It's worth noting, however, the impact on average revenue per user (ARPU) should be minimal. First of all, Disney+ already has over 118 million subscribers, so four million subscribers paying significantly less than the average in the U.S. won't have a huge impact. Second, Disney still gets a lot of subscribers from its low-priced Disney+ Hotstar service in India, which has a much bigger impact on ARPU.

Disney's taking a risk

There's significant risk in asking Hulu + Live TV subscribers to take the entire bundle of Disney streaming services. The virtual pay-TV service is designed to have low switching costs -- there's no annual contract, so subscribers can come and go as they please.

At the new $70-per-month price, that makes Hulu + Live TV one of the more expensive pay-TV services available. Alphabet's YouTube TV has reportedly surpassed Hulu as the most popular virtual multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD), and it's now priced $5 less per month. And there are other options for even less. Not to mention, subscribers may be able to save money by going back to traditional cable.

The Hulu + Live TV service is an important asset for the media company as it negotiates carriage deals for its cable networks. It's practically tread water with subscribers over the past year, and now, it's risking increased subscriber churn. The payoff could come with more Disney+ subscribers in this period, but investors should keep an eye on how it impacts Hulu + Live TV subscriptions over the next couple quarters.

Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Adam Levy owns shares of Alphabet (C shares) and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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