In the first episode of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, one teenager moans, “Why do things have to change?” To which his friend, wise beyond his years (or at least pretending to be), replies: “Some things never change.”
That pretty much describes what it's like to take a peek into the future of entertainment that is Disney+, the new streaming service launching today in the US.
Out of the box, Disney+ feels a bit like a branding exercise — a beautifully-packaged suite of familiar franchises developed by Disney or one of its many, many acquisitions, like Pixar and Marvel and mostly recently Fox Entertainment Group (itself a bottomless trove of content from The Simpsons to National Geographic).
Leading the way is The Mandalorian, the highly-anticipated Star Wars series about a lone gunfighter who inhabits a chaotic void in the timeline between the Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens films. Eight episodes will drop — one per week, the way they’re supposed to — and showrunner Jon Favreau is already working on Season 2.
Beyond The Mandalorian, however, there is a pronounced drop-off in originality and buzz for Disney+ originals. They include a live-action remake of the 1955 Disney film Lady and the Tramp, a history of the Walt Disney Imagineering division, and the newest offshoot of the weather-beaten Disney Channel High School Musical franchise, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. That last one, with the title in need of a colectomy, is a study in derivativeness. Filmed mockumentary-style at the actual Utah movie location for the first High School Musical in 2006, it remains a tale of teen romance and dreams of stardom that Hollywood has monetized for decades, this time with Instagram and Spotify references sprinkled in.
It’s easy to feel underwhelmed by shows like that, and yet, I definitely get the sense that something seismic is going on below the surface. This is partly due to the vast scale of assets that I know are at Disney’s disposal, and partly the realization that one of Netflix’s main competitors, Hulu, is now 67 percent owned by Disney, and will likely be completely owned by Disney by 2024. And yet, Disney still felt compelled to offer up a completely separate service called Disney+.
I can see why. Tuning in most nights to either Hulu or Amazon Prime Video, I see giant DVD collections converted to streaming. That was the idea when these services launched years ago — it’s just like watching TV, but on your phone! Netflix, which actually was in the DVD business (and still is!), had a better idea. It gambled on rapidly expanding its library of original content and hoped that creatives and viewers could keep up. And they did.
Disney executives watched all this happening, and realized Hulu was too feeble a concept. Disney+ is the result. Though it will take time, eventually an unprecedented trove of content — including the Marvel, Lion King, and Frozen franchises — will be available through Disney+ at a reasonable annual price ($70 initially). You won't want the monthly plan.
And Disney is so relentless and deep-pocketed that (prediction) it will eventually be the only other streaming service you watch besides Netflix.
I say “eventually.” Right now Disney+ is launching with the short series Forky Asks a Question, which appear to be extras originally produced for the Blu-ray release of Toy Story 4. (Am I the only one who sees a resemblance between Forky and beloved SNL sad sack Mr. Bill?) But it’s only a short step from that to launching Toy Story 5 simultaneously in theaters and on your 4K screen at home via Disney+. And from there it’s a hop and skip to the next great franchise — whatever that is — coming exclusively to your living room. That’s where we’re heading.
That’s also what Netflix was trying to tell us when it disclosed the eye-popping internals on its Bird Box movie last December. The day is approaching when Netflix and Disney won’t need AMC Theatres or Outfront Media to launch something into the stratosphere, not when they can just drop that film, TV show, or live event into the 40 million homes most likely to watch it.
Consumer protection nags will wring their hands about the “consolidation of content” and tell viewers they’re getting ripped off, despite the exponential growth of content and relative flattening of monthly cable bills. As they say on ESPN (part of a Disney+/Hulu/ESPN bundle at $14/month), I’m not buying that, I’m selling that.
Because face it people: No one forced you to stop collecting DVDs or CDs. You asked for a Netflix-Disney+ world, just as you asked for pay-by-the-song downloading the moment the iTunes Store opened for business … with the blessing of The Walt Disney Company. Only now have the technologies, content libraries, and business models converged to make something like Disney+ happen.
Alas, this does mean streaming will not be a Wild West of content cowboys for much longer. As John Wayne and Star Wars taught us, we humans like our world divided into white hats and black hats. EPIX, Acorn TV, Britbox, and Food Network will keep streaming for a while, asking you for $6 a month here, $70 a year there. But to quote that CBS All Access property known as the Borg, it's only a matter of time before they — and, for that matter, CBS All Access — will be assimilated.
One thing missing from my Disney+ preview was National Geographic content — perhaps because Disney is still digesting that acquisition, which came as part of the Fox deal — but I’m bullish on this aspect, which may yet pose an existential threat to Discovery Networks. National Geographic crews shoot so much high-definition video in so many places around the planet, it’s only a matter of time before the storytellers at Pixar figure out how to drop animated dodos into the real-life Madagascar. Or the cartoon one. It’s their call!
Twenty years ago, I had one cable company, and it was my broadband provider. Ten years from now, I’ll have two streaming services, and one broadband provider (which may own one of the streamers, or vice versa). As the High School Musical philosophers might ask, is this change or not?
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.