An episode of Lizzie McGuire from 2002 opens with Hilary Duff and her pals crunching potato chips on the couch as an indecipherable gameshow elicits expressions of content bafflement from their faces. Duff’s animated homunculus waggles a pretzel, narrating: “Eating junk food with your friends watching TV while your brain turns to tapioca: This is what America’s all about.”
Since my wife and I signed up for Disney+ last week, there’s been a lot of Hilary Duff in our apartment. In addition to its more heralded offerings— a library of Marvel and Star Wars films, 30 seasons of the Simpsons, and The Mandalorian, a galactic western tailor-made for internet recappers— the service includes a full sweep of “Disney Channel favorites.” Hannah Montana and High School Musical, sure, but also Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and Smart House. The roster of blockbusters got nothing more than a cursory nod from my wife, while the deeper cuts drew legitimate jubilation. “They have Go Figure?” she asked in disbelief. “Oh my god, Get a Clue!”
Where Netflix’s strategy of going big on original programming, adopted and doubled-down on in the 12 years since the DVD-delivery service first harvested a server farm, has generated a near-infinite library of unrecognizable programming, Disney+ arrives fully stocked with the familiar. Rather than relying on the sort of algorithmic logic that renders derivative dross like Klaus inevitable, Disney+ plays to the masses by allowing users to just watch The Santa Claus. If Netflix is increasingly stocking store brands and generics, Disney+ is selling Oreos. It takes the guesswork out of entertainment, easing the hours between the office and the bed by removing any possible cerebral challenge. As much as it invokes nostalgia, the service has an even more rudimentary appeal: the predictable tickle of a pleasure-center. Nothing on Disney+ has to be that good because nothing on Disney+ is fundamentally unfamiliar. Oreos aren’t the best cookies in the world. Far from it! But who doesn’t like an Oreo?
Not all viewers are so risk-averse, but as Disney’s iron grip on the entertainment landscape demonstrates, a whole hell of a lot of them are. Through the first nine months of this year, the company’s franchise first, ask questions later strategy has garnered it over $8 billion in worldwide ticket sales, including a third of the total box office in North America— and that’s before the release of the new Star Wars, Frozen, and Maleficent movies, the last of which is itself a franchise spun off a 1959 blockbuster. It’s no surprise, then, that Disney+ reached 10 million subscribers only a day after it launched, already topping the 2019 goal publicized by sandbagging executives.
For now, the service’s audience is a fraction of Netflix’s. But the speed with which that’s changing suggests that the “streaming wars” will not be about Netflix versus imitators, but between original content and older material– that is, something equivalent to what film aficionados call “repertory.” Disney+ has asserted itself as the destination for viewers seeking the latter, a library of minor pleasures. As Apple TV+ invests in glitzy star-vehicle like The Morning Show, featuring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell, Disney+ takes a less speculative approach. Even the platform’s most hyped original series, The Mandalorian, plays the hits. Yes, the swaggering Clint Eastwood figure in the show doesn’t wear the black hat, but it’s only because his face is instead obscured by the same mask Boba Fett wore in The Empire Strikes Back.
Where twenty years ago Disney felt like the embodiment of quaint domesticity, today it is more like a megalithic squid, its tentacles stuffing content into the chattering maws of ravenous fandoms.
Disney+ abhors novelty and perhaps its enthusiastic early subscribers do as well. As my wife and I power through the Duff canon, others have surely been immersing themselves in the animated X-Men series, or classics from the so-called Vault, or maybe the feel-good, live-action stuff, like Remember the Titans and Miracle.
That’s all in keeping with the intellectual property that Disney controls. Individual entries in each of the company’s signature franchises are largely disposable, even as the franchises themselves are surely not. Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar— it’s all marketed to largely the same audience and received by them in largely the same ways. This mirrors the way that streaming has already made worthier work feel disposable. How different, really, is the experience of binging Breaking Bad from chugging The Blacklist? Both are fundamentally passive experiences and Disney+ doubles down on that passivity by ensuring no waters need to be tested. It’s lukewarm by design, with the familiar beats of The Simpsons and the sentiment of animated classics stirring together into what may be the platonic ideal of a repertory library.
The experience of watching Disney+ is like feeling dumb, but in a comfortable sort of way. It’s like a cable channel that’s all reruns (think: TBS in its heyday, or even the GameshowNetwork). You can watch for hours, and never feel a thing except contentment. Whatever algorithm lurks beneath, it’s about as sophisticated as the genre racks at a Blockbuster. Liked Hercules? Try Lion King! Thought Cadet Kelly was a riot? You’ll love Pixel Perfect! The recommendations are so obvious that the service seems to be giving away how easy the job of keeping viewers in front of their televisions, phones, and laptops really is.
There’s wisdom in pursuing such a strategy, however safe. Disney may be the closest thing Americans have to a common cultural heritage. Disney Land is our Notre Dame; Disney World our Vatican. The image of the White House is meaningful to Americans on an intellectual level, but its emotional resonance can’t compete with the vision of the Disney castle that appears before the opening credits roll. The beam of magical light arcing over the castle is encoded in our brains from an early age, just as that first sting of the Star Wars theme is. And the Disney heritage is passed down through generations in ways that are both widespread and distinct to each family. The ritual viewing of certain films, the dressing up as certain princesses, the acquisition of certain collectables– whatever the specifics, it’s immensely difficult to find a family in America whose own codes and memories are not, in some way, informed by Disney magic.
That said, the idea of Disney as a source for anything aside from animated features and Mickey Mouse is quite recent. Under the leadership of Bob Iger, the company has embarked on an imperial phase, gobbling up Marvel, Pixar, LucasFilm, and, just this year, 21st Century Fox. Where twenty years ago Disney felt like the embodiment of quaint domesticity, today it is more like a megalithic squid, its tentacles stuffing content into the chattering maws of ravenous fandoms.
Those audiences may feel distinct from the supposed trend-chasers who eagerly consume Tuca and Bertie or Russian Doll or whatever happens to be, however fleetingly the new black, but the truth is that for all its lavish spending on new content, Netflix is deeply reliant on its repertory offerings. The service’s most-streamed shows last year? The Office, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy. That’s according to Nielsen, which also found that of Netflix’s 20 most popular shows, only six were developed in house. As a Nielsen executive pointed out to AdWeek, even the viewership of that handful of hits is fleeting: “Originals have a very brief lifespan…. They are viewed and then people move on.”
In the meantime, if there’s any opportunity for new ideas to be introduced on Disney+, it will surely be within the confines of existing universes — or “lands” in Disney parlance.
Recall that even as it was shedding its first skin as a mail-order movie store, Netflix-as-streaming-service didn’t launch an original show until 2013. Since then, the company has spent tens of billions of dollars to develop critical faves like Narcos and BoJack Horseman along with untold thousands of hours of schlock like Nailed It! and Sextuplets. All the while, its core business has been and continues to be Friends, which is tantamount to wallpaper. The voices, faces, and laugh tracks create a comforting backdrop for whatever other rituals of relaxation are required to get through a day. Not that the right to air Friends comes cheaply: this year alone, Netflix reportedly shelled out $100 million to WarnerMedia for the privilege.
Disney, of course, does not have to worry about any nine-figure licensing fees. That gives it an enormous head start in the race to catch up with Netflix, one shared by WarnerMedia, who are launching their own streaming service, HBO Max, next year. HBO Max will include exclusive rights to Friends, which begs the question of how long Netflix’s current model will remain sustainable once it loses its grip on the repertory it relies so heavily upon.
In the meantime, if there’s any opportunity for new ideas to be introduced on Disney+, it will surely be within the confines of existing universes — or “lands” in Disney parlance. Toy Story, but in a Shenzhen sweatshop. Frozen, but written by Jo Nesbo. Those shows may serve to keep Disney+ in the news, just as The Mandalorian is doing now, but most people will still just be watching the Simpsons.
Disney+ is, at the end of the day, still in the Disney business. And Disney has always been more interested in market dominance than in critical prestige. That may be concerning for viewers seeking out the experience of being surprised by work that is genuinely new, but it should hardly be surprising. Though work that fits that bill has managed to substantially revive television’s reputation over the past two decades, the medium remains one that can only be enjoyed passively. A television is not a thing that you have to seek out, it is a thing that sits in your living room, waiting. Well, it used to just sit in your home. Now it lurks on your laptop and rides in your pocket.
While Netflix’s ability to maintain its own library of comforting shows will be put in jeopardy as each rights holder begins to deploy its own streaming service, Disney’s library isn’t going anywhere. Perhaps Netflix can eventually find a way to hold the same attention with original programs that it currently does with old sitcoms, but until it does, Disney+ seems poised to eventually overtake it as the thing everyone turns on when they just want to have something on. And in our era of constantly consolidating media, who’s to say that within a few years we won’t soon be referring to Friends, The Office, and Cheers as their own cogs in Disney’s ever-expanding repertory archive?
The launch of Disney+ marks the beginning of the end for the idea that the streaming present is in some way distinct from the analog or cable eras that came before. The television remains the central gathering place in the home, the thing kids don’t have to be asked twice to gather around. Disney+ is designed to keep us there, munching potato chips, laughing at all the same old jokes until it’s time explain them to the next generation.