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Why are Disney Plus Original Series Underperforming? [Analysis]

Tangled Disney TV Series

Tangled Disney TV Series

Today, news broke courtesy Streamr that Disney is running a survey investigating the low viewership in their criminally underrated, most superior original series - Big Shot (2021). Big Shot's finale aired today but you probably wouldn't know that. One of the questions the survey asks is whether people would have watched more episodes if it had been available in a binge format. This is where I step in once more and reiterate what I've been shouting at the moon since earlier this year. People don't watch Disney+ series because Disney+ is not seen as a destination for TV.

Yesterday, news broke courtesy Streamr that Disney is running a survey investigating the low viewership in their criminally underrated, most superior original series – Big Shot (2021). Big Shot’s finale aired today but you probably wouldn’t know that. One of the questions the survey asks is whether people would have watched more episodes if it had been available in a binge format. This is where I step in once more and reiterate what I’ve been shouting at the moon since earlier this year.

People don’t watch Disney+ series because Disney+ is not seen as a destination for TV.

This is 100 percent Disney’s fault. It’s a combination of misguided executive decisions, management conflicts, and missing features / marketing. I have provided steps to fix this, but I fear Disney is too firmly set in their ways with this regard. One positive thing that was announced this week is that Disney will be moving their original series to Wednesdays so these shows are no longer getting lost in the shuffle on Fridays with their original films and sparse library title additions.

There are four main reasons people don’t realize Disney+ has original series.

1) Disney+ has a Toxic Relationship with Hulu

Hulu was presented, initially, as where Disney would place “mature” titles like Rated R or TV-MA. In the time since Disney+ launched, zero TV-PG, TV-14, or even TV-G titles have migrated from Hulu. Even as TV-PG series like Ugly Betty (2006) [TV-PG], Cougar Town (2009) (TV-14), and Brothers & Sisters (2006) [TV-PG] expired back in September 2020, they were renewed days before leaving.

Screenshot of Hulu's Expiring titles in September 2020, including numerous family friends series they chose to renew instead of move to Disney Plus
Numerous Disney+-worthy ABC series were set to expire from Hulu in September 2020, but Disney renewed them.
Screenshot of Reddit post listing numerous ABC Family / Freeform shows that were expiring from Hulu January 2020, but then got renewed instead.
7 Freeform titles within Disney+ age rating allowance were set to expire from Hulu January 2020, but got renewed (Reddit post)

Earlier in 2020 numerous prime choice Freeform (once known as ABC FAMILY) titles were in a similar situation. Disney baffling renewed every single one, even 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) [TV-PG] which was based on the film of the same name which is streaming on Disney+ and is also more mature than the series. Make it Or Break It (2009) [TV-14] and Melissa & Joey [TV-14] were discussed in Disney community circles as being perfect for Disney+. People were so excited. So, naturally, they all got renewed on Hulu. TV viewers can’t have nice things.

Making matters worse – since launch, numerous titles within Disney+ allowed age ratings have gone from being vaulted to streaming on Hulu including just the past few months – My So Called Life (1994) [TV-14], Blossom (1990) [TV-PG], Zeke & Luther (2011) [TV-Y7], and in July, My Wife & Kids (2001) [TV-PG]. All of these series mentioned above are already on Disney+ in countries that have STAR except Zeke which appears to be under some odd legacy Disney XD syndication contract which added 5 XD titles to Hulu December 2020.

This awful strategy was not the initial intention for Disney+. The very day Disney officially unannounced the service, Malcom in the Middle (2000) was one of the few titles specifically mentioned as streaming on Disney+. It was in all their press releases, pdfs, graphics, etc. Agnes Chu, then in charge of content curation, stood in front of an image of its poster and said, “here are Fox titles coming.”

Former SVP of content at Disney Plus, Agnes Chu, falsely promoting Malcom in the Middle as a Disney+ launch title. It has never left Hulu 2 years later but was licensed to IMDBTV after launch...
The now infamous Agnes Chu photo still frustrates subscribers to this day.

Somehow. Somewhere. Someone made a terrible decision to lock all TV series on Hulu – regardless of TV-G, TV-PG, or TV-14 ratings and regardless of whether they expired or not. Only Once Upon a Time (2011) (dealing with Disney characters), The Muppet Show (1979), and The Muppets (2015) join the Disney Channel / Disney Junior series on Disney+. It’s a blatant insult to Disney’s large and varied group of subscribers. It’s also likely why cult-classic Galavant (2015) got vaulted after leaving Netflix despite being a Disney live-action fairytale brought to life with music by Tangled (2010) team – Disney legends Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Guilty of being an ABC-produced library series.

I strongly believe this attitude towards Disney+ from their strategy makers is the #1 reason responsible for series underperforming. They did this to themselves. And nobody understands why? People don’t see Disney+ as a place for TV or a place where adults can watch series. Big Shot is TV-PG, but is the most adult-friendly series they air and would have comfortably fit in with ABC’s primetime TV schedule. People see Disney+ as a place for big genre event series like Loki (2021), WandaVision (2021), or The Mandalorian (2019) and pre-school series only.

2) Disney+ IS a Babysitter Service

Well respected streaming analysts such as the Entertainment Strategy Guy or Rich Greenfield have even been calling it for what it is – a kid’s service. A niche service like Noggin, Boomerang, or CrunchyRoll, built for children and parents who don’t understand what “parental controls” are, but really need their kid out of their hair for a while.

This… is not what Disney should be settling for. Even IF the initial plan was for Hulu to be #1 and Disney+ to be a niche service add-on (widely believed to be true) times have changed and it would be incompetent to keep this philosophy. Disney+ should have put their weight behind the service with their name in the brand. They’ve done some course correcting with their focus but zero of that has been in relation to TV series.

When both potential and current subscribers see the service as a children’s service, nobody considers logging in to watch Big Shot. They think of shows like Hannah Montana (2006), Jessie (2011), and Doc McStuffins (2012). It doesn’t even click to them that there are incredible series like Big Shot (2021) and next Friday, the The Mysterious Benedict Society (2021).

Since Investor Day 2020, both the President and CFO, Bob Chapek and Christine McCarthy respectively, quite weirdly have been bragging about Disney’s audience being roughly half child-free adults. It’s weird because their USA strategy in no way reflects this recent revelation and they never suggest any changes incoming. This point left a lot of people in my group chats and communities with a sour taste in their mouth. They’re proud to mention how many people they have without kids, but won’t produce original content for them or provide library series for them.

Interesting article about Disney Adults by HerCampus

Disney+ has yet to announce or create an original, ongoing comedy or drama series that would be a TV-14. Disney+ has yet to announce or produce an original film that is PG-13. As they ramp up their originals slate, the upper ratings they allow should see actual utilization.

As mentioned in the first section – all existing TV series titles adults may enjoy seeing on Disney+ that expire from Hulu are renewed. No library series are moving over to change the optics. Doogie Howser (1989) [TV-PG] has a reboot coming around September (UPDATE: We were correct – September 8th!) known as Doogie Kamealoha (2021). Doogie is my most anticipated non-Marvel / Star Wars series. Safe bet that the original Doogie series does not transfer from Hulu to Disney+ in August to live alongside its reboot. Questionable marketing / content decision, if true.

Furthering my point – Disney+ TV series don’t (and Doogie, sadly probably won’t) perform well because Disney+ is not a destination for TV.

3) Disney+ Doesn’t Adequately Promote Ongoing Series

This is probably the third largest reason TV series underperform on Disney Plus, but important nonetheless. We’ll begin with a fun exercise. Below you’ll find Loki’s homescreen thumbnail on Disney+ Hotstar (Malaysia and Indonesia), Disney+ Japan (a rebranded version of their original Disney Deluxe service), and the primary Disney+. Why do you think the main service thumbnail is the worst?

Answer: Bafflingly, the primary Disney+ service available in most countries does not include a basic feature present on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and other services: indicators on thumbnails that say things like “New Episodes Weekly,” “New,” “New Episode,” etc. It wouldn’t be as ridiculous if not for the fact that Disney+ in Japan, Indonesia, and Malaysia have always had this highly useful feature.

As a result, when potential viewers of a Disney+ Original series log in, they have no way of knowing if a series that shows on the homescreen is a current series. They have no way of knowing if the thumbnail leads to a Disney XD series that ended 4 years ago. As ongoing series continue to arrive, it’s odd to not have a basic overlay like this that informs people weekly episodes are coming. Some services get it right – they even include a “New Episode” over the newly added individual episode thumbnails to keep engagement and help people keep track. Things like this would encourage more people to click thumbnails like Big Shot and watch the series.

Disney recently started a new thing where they add batches of episodes from in-season series instead of waiting until the full season is over to add it all. This is awesome! But they’ve done a terrible job implementing it. They provide no indication on the episode thumbnails that they are newly added. For example, Sydney to the Max (2019) Season 3 episodes 1-8 were added a few weeks back. On July 30th they are adding episodes 9-13. NOTHING on the page will inform subscribers the episodes added weren’t always there.

Sydney to the Max Season 3 episodes 9-13 will be dropped into this interface without any indicator they are new.

Look at Lizzie McGuire (2001)’s title page on Disney+ Japan. They recently added season 2. NOBODY would be confused. This would not slip through the cracks, because every episode of Season 2 has a “New” indicator over it.

A crew member of Earth to Ned (2020) told me earlier this year they were disappointed Disney dumped episodes 11-20 of season 1 onto the title page this year and didn’t include any form of “New Episodes” indicator on the thumbnail image OR “New” indicator on the 10 newly added episodes so people understood they were not the same episodes they had viewed in the past. It upset me to see them experience this burying of their brilliant series and share that pain with me.

In Disney’s defense – they do promote newly added episodes in one area of the interface. The hero (which is a goofy web design term for the big image at top of a page / eye-grabbing header).

Disney+ Hero promoting Loki’s episodes arriving every Wednesday
Disney+ Hero promoting Big Shot’s episode 9 is now streaming

This is not in anyway sufficient or appropriate to serve as the sole way people know new episodes have arrived. For one reason, there is a limit to how many things can be featured. For another, you have to choose to scroll through it or get lucky enough to see the title that is relevant to you mentioned. When it comes to design I’m partial to HBO Max or Netflix which focuses on one BIG, gorgeous featured splash image and think the slider, despite its admittedly beautiful images, is reminiscent of the first website I built in high school. Until Disney adds “new” indicators on thumbnails, the Hero slider remains necessary.

One last note on this issue – these indicators would also be present outside the homescreen, such as in the search results. This is necessary feature to any streaming service that wants people to engage with its series or films.

Disney+ Hero promoting New Episodes of Zenimation now streaming.

4) Disney+ Does Not Offer Next-Day Episodes

Every streaming service except Disney+ offers some titles the day after or same day they air. Netflix does it with some international series. Peacock and Paramount+ do it with their big NBC and CBS series, HBO Max does it with HBO series. Hulu is known for it. Hulu’s subscribers are almost entirely there because Hulu offers next-day episodes of most network TV. As people learn Disney owns both Hulu and Disney+ they become confused why Hulu can offer next-day ABC, Freeform, FX, and 20th TV series, but Disney+ is unwilling 20 months into the service to offer next-day episodes on the 4 networks that feed directly to Disney+ – National Geographic, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and National Geographic Wild. This is a huge roadblock for Disney+ which makes it look inferior.

The issue runs deeper. Next-day episodes do exist for Disney Channel and Disney Junior – but they exist on DisneyNow. A service which should have been terminated the day Disney+ launched. DisneyNow currently features approximately ~115 titles and ~40 are exclusive sets of shorts. Some of these like Ruth and Ruby’s Virtual Sleepover (2020), Tsum Tsum (2015), Whisker Haven (2015), and Two More Eggs (2015) should be on Disney+, not a strange, 3rd-tier streaming service.

Some of the many shorts available on DisneyNow, but not Disney+

Meanwhile, episodes of National Geographic and Nat Geo Wild series also appear on-demand and on NatGeoTV.com the next day. NatGeoTV currently has a whopping 100+ specials and series exclusive to this website. Offering more episodes to cable subscribers than Disney+ subscribers paints a picture that Disney+ is not the future – it’s an interloper.

NatGeoTV.com has an insane amount of content compared to Disney+ Nat Geo brand tile.

This needs to change for people to see Disney+ as a destination for TV. While the truth is likely Disney refuses to part ways with the ad revenue that comes from the ads on next-day episodes on these services, it’s still a problem. Even if that means an ad-tier on Disney+. Most people would gladly take that if it meant more considerably more series and next-day access to episodes to boot.

In addition to the aforementioned brands, Disney+ actually already streams the older seasons of 2 series which maintain current seasons on Hulu. Those shows are The Simpsons (1989) and America’s Funniest Home Videos (1989). The Simpsons were one of the primary selling points of Disney+. How WEIRD is it that Hulu is the place for next day episodes and not the service which hosts the 31 previous seasons?

Conclusion

Disney doesn’t need to make their series bingeable to improve viewership. They need to correct their strategy and improve the service’s interface. Look in a mirror, Disney.

  • Rethink your executive staff if they’re standing in the way of progress and evolution.
  • Adding a chunk of 20-50 library TV series from Hulu would instantly change people’s perception of the service and reshape their belief that Disney+ is not a destination for TV.
  • Seeing NEW and NEW EPISODES indicators on thumbnails would increase clickthrough and viewership.
  • Streaming next-day episodes from their main brands or The Simpsons would put an end to the belief that Disney+ is not a streaming service to go to if you want to watch TV.

What do you think? Would you prefer to see Disney add all episodes at the same time? Do you agree with my criticisms / suggestions? Any suggestions of your own? Leave a comment and let us know!

Founder / Editor-in-Chief at DejaViewstream | Website | + posts

Drew Ryan is a film, TV, and Disney geek. He has degrees in English, Student Personnel Administration, and Library & Information Science from Lawrence University, Concordia University-Wisconsin, and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Interested in the minutia and licensing of streaming service content, he is always publishing lists, suggestions, and advocating for Disney’s missing library to be added to Disney+. Drew subscribes to Disney+, Hulu, Netflix, HBO Max, and Paramount+. You can find him waxing nostalgic over classic Disney Channel or geeking out over Marvel, CW shows, & Disney on Twitter.