It’s Disney+ launch day, the arrival of a new video app that serves as Walt Disney Co.’s official entry into the streaming wars. But while the $7-a-month service may be a perfect choice for fans of “The Avengers” and “Star Wars,” or for parents of young children, Disney knows that’s not nearly enough variety for most people. Its efforts to address that shortcoming hint at what’s next for the industry: the revival of bundles.
Buzz about Disney+ has been building for some weeks, as ads for the service cropped up on Twitter, billboards and TV. What’s gotten less attention is the crucial role Hulu plays in the company’s strategy. As part of Tuesday’s launch, consumers also now have the option of getting Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu (the on-demand version with ads) together for a rate of $13 a month, rather than paying for each app separately, which would total $18. Internally, Disney appears to be calling it the “super-bundle,” based on the image file name that was displayed on the sign-up page early Tuesday morning in place of a logo that wasn’t rendering (whoops):
With the way content has been atomized — e.g., you can only stream Disney stuff on Disney+ going forward — no service on its own will provide all the shows and movies that a typical consumer wants. So as more viewers become completely reliant on streaming subscriptions, they’ll try to configure a set of apps that gets closest to imitating their ideal cable package. But that may get quite expensive.
Say you want to watch “The Mandalorian” — the “Star Wars” series that’s headlining Disney+ — but you’re also a fan of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” hooked on HBO’s “Succession” and want lots of live sports, the likes of which Google’s broadcast-channel-heavy YouTube TV service provides. That would add up to $85 a month, in addition to the price of internet access — not quite the savings one might have envisioned from canceling cable. For the media companies, this is going to lead to lots of subscriber turnover month to month, with viewers pausing one subscription in favor of another just to binge on a new season of a hit series.
The pickings on Disney+ are simply too narrow to be a cable substitute. This is where Hulu comes in, and to a lesser extent, ESPN+ (which is chiefly for fans of soccer and college sports). Hulu provides some of what’s missing from Disney’s superhero and family-friendly fare, with popular originals such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” recent episodes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and other licensed programming. While the super bundle is really just Disney+ and Hulu throwing in ESPN+ for free, it's strategically priced at the same rate as Netflix and provides insight into Disney's thinking.
Disney won’t be alone in looking for ways to bundle services for customers. HBO Max, the streaming app that AT&T Inc. is introducing in May 2020, is effectively a $15 bundle of HBO, content from sister networks such as TBS, the “Friends” and “Big Bang Theory” franchises and Warner Bros. films (all for the same price as HBO on its own). Apple Channels, where users can sign up for third-party services such as CBS All Access and Starz using their Apple ID, at least allows users to consolidate their payments to a single company, but it doesn’t provide discounts for doing so. For cable giants Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc., negotiating with programmers to structure discounted streaming-app bundles would be a natural evolution of their businesses.
So much of the focus of the streaming wars has been on trying to pick the winner, or who will be he true Netflix killer. In fact, Netflix and Disney may control 60% of the U.S. streaming-video market by 2024, according to Geetha Ranganathan, an analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence. Most people wouldn’t want to see the streaming marketplace go the way of the box office — where Disney’s Marvel movies and animated features are the overwhelming majority. (And Netflix isn’t exactly known for the highest-quality menu.) Bundles that include broader arrays of content from different sources offer a better shot at sustained competition, and that sounds awfully better than a world in which all Hollywood’s creative decisions rest in the hands of just a few giants.
It’s time to bundle up.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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