The boats are coming for Disney’s movies, ready to evacuate them from Netflix’s disputed shore. The studio’s deal with the streaming service expires next year; in 2019 everything that smells even faintly of mouse will move to a new redoubt. Disney and Pixar movies will supply the pipeline for a new Disney-owned streaming platform, a company rep said during an earnings announcement. (CEO Bob Iger also said he wasn’t sure if the Star Wars and Marvel movies would be on the same new service or somewhere else entirely.)
Don’t cry for Big Red, though. This isn’t the beginning of the end of Netflix—but it may well be the end of the beginning of what Hollywood calls Streaming Video on Demand. The first sign of SVOD’s Phase Two (to use a Marvelism) was the shift from “showing other people’s stuff” to “making stuff.” Netflix does it with, for example, the upcoming Defenders and Stranger Things. Hulu has The Handmaid’s Tale; Amazon Prime has Transparent.
And then The Good Fight happened. CBS’s launch of CBS All Access, the first SVOD owned and operated by a broadcast network, opens the door for Phase Three—a door Disney could have used, had it not just crashed through the wall and left a Mickey-shaped hole. You wanted to cut your cable cord? Get your knife out. And your credit card. Because studio-owned streaming networks are going to start dangling needful programming in front of you, one by one.
Quick sidebar: The companies that make television shows and movies aren’t always the same ones that air them. Complicated webs of dealmaking used to weave all of them together. 20th Century Fox would make shows for NBC; Universal Studios (owned, along with NBC, by Comcast) might make shows for Fox; Sony could make shows for NBC and CBS and syndication; and so on.
A River of Streaming
But now the incentives have changed. Netflix taught studios an important lesson about the afterlife of back catalogs and the value of new content. With more venues to show both, studios have more incentive to retain both creation and distribution. So for example ABC (owned by Disney) makes or will make a bunch of shows based on Marvel Comics (owned by Disney): Agents of Shield for ABC, Runaways for Hulu (part-owned by Disney), and Cloak & Dagger and New Warriors for Freeform (owned by Disney). Universal Cable Productions can aim its multiple development deals at a portfolio of NBCUniversal outlets, from NBC proper to USA, Syfy, or Bravo.
Could Disney have just shifted everything to ABC or one of its cable networks? Sure, but some of the money there goes to carriers. Imagine instead the way the company sees the potential profits of having not just one Disney app but three—Disney Animation, Marvel, and Star Wars—all vying for your subscription dollars. (Cheaper if you buy them all, maybe! Like a … bundle?) They could even offer other content unavailable anywhere else: live from opening night of Star Wars Land at Disneyland, perhaps. It’s the kind of stuff Uncle Walt used to put on Wonderful World of Himself in Color.
Genre is the perfect stealthsuit for this concept. You know what Star Trek fans will pay money to watch? Star Trek. It’s only because of a “creative differences”-flavored holdup that Star Trek: Discovery wasn’t the flagship show for CBS All Access, and as I’ve written before, I’m still all-in. Star Trek shows have for decades been wedges into new TV distribution models: Next Generation was among the first hour-long straight-to-syndication series, Deep Space Nine was an early example of serialized TV outside of soaps, and Voyager opened Paramount’s UPN channel.
Why use Trek to experiment? Because genre has a built-in viewer base, made of nerds. Fox found it first, when the network thought it was merely dumping The X-Files in its late-Friday time slot, and TV has never regretted it.
Genre is the perfect stealthsuit for a new streaming network. You know what Star Trek fans will pay money to watch? Star Trek.
Which is why I’m going to speculate: The next SVOD should be some kind of genre-branded outgrowth of NBCUniversal. I’ve loved the commodity science fiction that makes up the core of Syfy’s current grid. The network wants to join the flow toward “premium”—with The Expanse and … well, I guess I’m skeptical of the Superman prequel Krypton being that level of show, but what the El do I know, right? (I am so, so sorry. He insisted. —Editor)
The thing is, Universal Cable Productions and the people in its orbit remember Battlestar Galactica not just as being great but also as before its time. If a network could find a way to capitalize on the nerd minimum viewership but also deliver the trappings of premiumness that attract subscriber dollars (lush production values, ambiguously moral protagonists, intricate and serialized plot lines, sex), that strategy could withstand even the absence of familiar franchises like Disney’s.
UCP may have an answer to that, by the way. Its development slate is heavy on books beloved in the genre world, like Hugh Howey’s Sand and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle, and creators similarly beloved. Catherine Hardwicke’s set to direct the Raven show, and Community creator Dan Harmon is supposed to make a show based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel Sirens of Titan. (You thought Legion was trippy.)
Here’s a way I could be wrong: NBC just announced it was closing Seeso, its comedy-oriented SVOD network. Possibly people just didn’t want to pay for comedy, or didn’t want to pay for it when similar offerings were already available on other networks, or for free on YouTube. Or maybe Seeso was splitting its audience with Howl Premium. Maybe there’s enough free sci-fi in the world, and the Disney marques are sui generis.
On the other hand, an NBCUni science fiction channel could just absorb Syfy and also become the exclusive home for the old Universal monsters movies (not the new ones). That would force-reboot nerds into shut-up-and-take-my-money mode.
Still: ugh. A shattering of the television universe into a boundless multiverse of subscription services sounds like an expensive pain in the ass. (Roku will make you broke-u, as my colleague Brian Raftery says.)
Even worse, segregating TV into ad-supported free crap and paywalled “premium” shows contributes to an already fractured society. I don’t whine as much as some other old people about the loss of the communal culture enforced by three networks to rule them all, but you can’t escape the elitist tinge of thinking that “smart” shows can only exist inside gated content communities amid an ad-supported hinterland of rote procedurals, endorphin-pumping primetime soap operas, and YouTube.
So that’s the real question: If Disney is evacuating, are the princesses, superheroes, and star warriors going to take us all with them?