More than a year after launching Disney+, a clear success with just shy of 94.9 million global subscribers, Disney has so far reported the least amount of viewership data of any major streaming competitor.
The company’s quarterly earnings call today with Wall Street analysts continued the close-to-the-vest trend, apart from the set of streaming numbers included historically in quarterly financial filings. But even that disclosure appears to be heading for a notable change.
“Given that we are past the launch year of Disney+, we no longer intend to update our DTC subscriber numbers as of our earnings dates,” CFO Christine McCarthy said. “But we will continue to provide you with quarter-end subs. We may choose to make additional disclosures when we hit certain milestones.”
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Soul, for instance, has been tracked in the U.S. by Nielsen, and downloads of the Disney+ app have been monitored by third-party mobile research firms like Sensor Tower, linking it to certain key releases. But Disney has not offered anything other than a few brief adjectives about the Christmas release of Soul, or any other film or series to hit Disney+ since it went live in November 2019.
“We were absolutely thrilled in terms of what that brought to our business,” CEO Bob Chapek said of Soul during the earnings call, “in terms of both acquisition and retention. I would say it was a big hit with our subscriber base.”
Mulan, which was a Premier Access release last fall at a $30 premium for Disney+ subscribers, “was successful, to the extent that we’re also using it on Raya and the Last Dragon,” Chapek said. Next month, Raya will be available as a $30 title for subscribers, with a no-fee release on Disney+ to follow later in the year. He said “individual decisions” would continue to be made as to release patterns, based on many variables. Some movies – like, for now, Black Widow — will remain theatrical and others will go straight to Disney+. Some titles could well end up serving as “another data point in our exploration of Premier Access day-and-date with theatrical.”
Streaming numbers across the industry are parceled out a lot more carefully than box office revenues or Nielsen ratings, for a lot of logical reasons. Simply put, companies generally don’t have an obligation to disclose anything. Premium cable networks when they were ascending decades ago never used to reveal ratings like ad-supported networks felt compelled to. The number of subscribers was their alpha and omega. So it can be said for streaming. Yet it’s still striking that other major players like Netflix, HBO Max, Peacock — and even Amazon Prime Video and Apple — have put a finer point on their streaming efforts than Disney has.
Netflix frustrated many observers and industryites for years with limited viewership data disclosures, but in more recent times it has revealed more numbers (cherry-picked though they may be). The stats carry a bit of an asterix, as the company counts a “view” as any subscriber sampling of at least two minutes of a particular title, not exactly a sign of major commitment. Still, the company reliably puts out a handful of fresh stats each quarter and lets talent share select numbers on social media year-round. The teams running HBO Max and Peacock have not divulged quite as many hard numbers, but they have run down various engagement figures and rankings for their programming. They at least hint at how it is being consumed and don’t just stop at subscriber numbers.
Amazon didn’t exactly lift the veil on Borat 2, but at least it did make a rare disclosure last fall that “tens of millions” of Prime subscribers watched the film over its opening weekend. Apple has also been largely mum on a corporate level about the rollout of Apple TV+, a mere footnote in the sweeping Services division next to iCloud or Apple Music and iCloud. Nevertheless, a few insights have slipped out from Cupertino over the past year. Originals like Defending Jacob and Servant are among the service’s most popular, sources have let on, and 30% of those watching Tom Hanks action movie Greyhound were said to have signed up for Apple+ to watch it.
For Disney, the stakes could not be higher for its streaming business, a beacon of hope at a moment when Covid-19 has ravaged its other operations, which is undoubtedly a prevailing factor in its decisions about transparency. At the company’s investor day in December, the company won raves for showing off a cavalcade 100 new series and movies headed to the service, an average of a new title a week. It also revealed price increases in the U.S. and other territories, a move that elicited almost none of the backlash that such moves often do. When you’re riding a hot streak, you don’t always have to read off the temperature.
On the earnings call, McCarthy described the price increase, which will boost U.S. plans $1 a month, as “very reasonable.” Chapek added, “The best insulation we’ve got is to keep the price/value relationship very high, and there’s no better way to do it than powerhouse franchises cranking out regular new releases on a monthly basis.”
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