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The Mandalorian is back, and with it a reason to open Disney Plus again

But what comes after?

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Photo by Francois Duhamel / Lucasfilm Ltd.

If you haven’t opened your Disney Plus app since The Mandalorian ended in December 2019, you’re not alone.

It wasn’t long after The Mandalorian’s first season ended that op-eds and tweetstorms started to appear decrying Disney Plus as an empty wasteland. Sure, The Simpsons was available to stream, but when it came to opening the app daily trying to find something new to watch, many people (without kids begging to watch Frozen 2 over and over again) weren’t impressed. Data from third-party firms, including Reelgood and 7Park Data, shows that while The Mandalorian was a guaranteed hit, Disney Plus has dwindled in interest since January. The streamer has also failed to continuously crack Nielsen’s Top 10 weekly streaming rankings in the United States, which are mostly dominated by shows and films on Netflix.

The looming question is: does it matter? Disney Plus has seen unprecedented growth over the last year, boasting more than 60 million subscribers — a number Disney executives told investors and analysts they planned to reach by 2024. The Disney Plus bundle, which gives people ESPN Plus and Hulu for $13 a month, has also helped Disney’s streaming services reach more than 100 million subscribers around the world. The company’s direct-to-consumer planning is paying off faster than executives thought possible, leading to a public reorganization that prioritizes streaming and major shareholders asking Disney to invest even more.

That big looming question can actually be divided into two parts. Disney Plus is fine as an overarching service that mostly appeals to families with younger kids; Disney Plus is also, however, facing a content drought that could become a problem. Without a steady stream of shows and films that appeal to people who aren’t just looking to rewatch the same movie over and over, Disney Plus will remain a complementary platform, not a primary service, according to Shelley Yang, an analyst at 7Park Data who covers streaming entertainment.

“We know that Disney has a Hulu and Disney Plus bundle, and that might make it a primary service for some in the United States,” Yang tells The Verge. “But as of right now, it’s definitely a complimentary service, especially in terms of viewership compared to the big three.”

Data from third-party firms shows a few bumps for Disney Plus viewing and interest in the time since it launched: the first Mandalorian season, Hamilton debuting, and Mulan landing as a Premier Access title. The share of people watching Disney Plus sat between 20 and 23 percent in November and December 2019 — the time The Mandalorian was running — but dropped between January and July 2020, according to 7Park data. It jumped to more than 30 percent of viewers when Hamilton hit. More importantly, Disney CEO Bob Chapek told staff in an all-hands, which was obtained by The Verge, that it represented a different audience that was important to Disney Plus’ growth.

Outside of The Mandalorian, Disney has failed to produce a top 10 digital series that’s entirely new, according to Parrot Analytics. Data from Reelgood also shows that while continued interest in watching Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Hulu has remained steady, Disney Plus has wavered. It’s not that Disney Plus doesn’t offer quality. But the streaming landscape, demands consistency on top of quality. While Disney isn’t going to match Netflix’s pace — one that now costs Netflix billions in annual content spending — consistently having an eye-catching popular show or film that brings in subscribers, including those who aren’t necessarily interested in Disney and don’t have kids, is vital.

“Whenever there’s a hit, that’s when people are using the service,” Yang says. “If you compare it to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon, Disney Plus isn’t driving the bulk of attention on these platforms. Disney Plus needs more and different content to compete going forward if they’re asking people to spend an additional $7 a month on a service.”

This problem has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Disney didn’t plan to have a drought this long. If the pandemic hadn’t occurred, Disney would have started rolling out highly anticipated shows by August: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier first, then The Mandalorian’s second season, and WandaVision to finish the year. If things had worked out with Lizzie McGuire, that likely would have premiered this year, too. Alongside nature documentaries and nonfiction series through National Geographic and a brand-new season of The Simpsons, Disney was ready to stack the last half of the year.

The pandemic made much of that impossible. Production delays affected reshoots, while pre-production on other series couldn’t start. More people were spending time streaming than ever before, and while Disney Plus continued to grow (leading to shareholders asking for Disney to invest even more in its streaming business and a massive reorganization at the company) Disney had little to offer outside of its library — especially compared to Netflix. Certain movies that were meant to be theatrical releases, like Hamilton, Mulan, and Artemis Fowl found their way to Disney Plus, but there wasn’t a batch of series that made people go, “I have to open Disney Plus and keep returning.” As AT&T CEO John Stankey said about HBO Max on a recent earnings call, getting customers relies on originals; the library is hopefully what keeps them afterward.

Hence, The Mandalorian. It’s vital for Disney because it’s one of the rare titles on Disney Plus that will get people excited about opening the app again on a weekly basis. It also comes at an important time for Disney, as subscribers who came in through free one-year plans offered by partners like Verizon are set to see those deals expire. The Mandalorian might be the show that convinces people to continue subscribing, gets those who canceled their plans to resubscribe, and convinces those who have skipped over the app for months on end to finally open it again. It’s what comes after The Mandalorian, however, that matters more than anything else.