Disney+ amassed 28.6 million Disney+ subscribers in the first three months since it launched, far exceeding the 20 million estimate that analysts suggested Disney would make by the end of 2020. The company’s earnings report stated there were 26.5 million subscribers by the end of December, but CEO Bob Iger announced on the call that Disney+ hit 28.6 million as of Monday.
“We had a strong first quarter, highlighted by the launch of Disney+, which has exceeded even our greatest expectations,” CEO Bob Iger said in the release.
The subscriber growth helped Disney beat its overall earnings, coming in at $28.6 billion in revenue, above the projected. Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, which is where streaming exists, saw a growth of $0.9 billion to $4 billion in the quarter. Disney’s chief financial officer, Christine McCarthy, noted that Disney expects the majority of its growth going forward to come from international subscribers. The company is also expecting a bump in domestic subscribers around the premiere of highly anticipated series from Marvel and Lucasfilm. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier will premiere in August, WandaVision hits in December, and The Mandalorian returns for a second season in October.
Disney’s announcement comes just one week after Apple notably did not release numbers for its streaming service, Apple TV Plus, in its own earnings report. Apple CEO Tim Cook told investors the company was happy with TV Plus’ strong start, but a robust kickoff seems incomparable to Disney’s new figures.
To put it another way, Disney+ has made a good portion of Netflix’s total domestic subscriber base, and officially surpassed the number of HBO Now subscribers. Disney also recorded gains in subscribers for its two other streaming services, Hulu and ESPN+. Hulu went from 22.8 million subscribers at the end of December 2018 to 30.4 million by the end of 2019. ESPN+ went from 1.4 million at the end of December 2018 to 6.6 million at the end of 2019. These increases were largely driven by the $12.99-a-month bundle that Disney offered to its US subscribers.
Bottom line: it’s impressive. Disney is likely to adjust projections for Disney+ subscriber growth in the coming years. The company originally estimated it would earn between 60 and 90 million subscribers by 2024. With more than 28 million subscribers subscribers, and bigger global expansion coming in the next few months, Disney is likely to fly past those original estimates much sooner than expected. Especially with the launch of Disney+ in Europe, where interest is high, in less than two months time.
The company has proven that it can bring subscribers to its streaming services like Disney+, but the bigger question that Iger and Disney’s head of the direct-to-consumer division, Kevin Mayer, will have to answer is how to keep those subscribers throughout the year. “Churn,” which refers to a symptom of the streaming war era, refers to the rapidity of subscribers signing up for and canceling plans. Since customers aren’t tied into long cable packages anymore, it’s easier for people to come and go.
Critics expressed frustration and concern for Disney+ in the wake of The Mandalorian’s finale, arguing that for customers without children, Disney+’s offerings were slim. The Simpsons has become a comfort show that teen and adult subscribers can throw on and watch, but Disney doesn’t have the type of diverse catalog that Netflix does. Disney+ does have a number of series from some of its biggest teen- and adult-oriented franchises being released this year that Iger and Mayer can point to, including Marvel’s WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier, plus a second season of The Mandalorian.
Disney also has a not-so-secret weapon when it comes to concerns about churn: Hulu. Disney+ isn’t a general entertainment platform. It’s a hub for Disney’s biggest franchises, but that isn’t enough to keep everyone satisfied every day of every month, all year round. Disney is trying to offset the churn in customers it loses from Disney+ by counter programming in an attempt to bring them over to Hulu.
Its investment in programming for Hulu isn’t secret. A big part of the reason Disney bought 21st Century Fox was for access to its catalog of content and IP franchises. FX, Fox’s cable network that produces prestigious TV series comparable to HBO, will now move a portion of its upcoming slate directly to Hulu.
The company is also lessening the number of movies that 20th Century Studios (formerly 20th Century Fox) releases theatrically, and is increasing the number of movies that will exist exclusively on Hulu. This — on top of other licensing deals Disney is working on for back catalog entertainment and originals — will become Disney’s ultimate general streaming play.
Hulu will remain key to Disney’s play for streaming dominance, which helps explain recent executive leadership changes. Randy Freer, Hulu’s CEO over the last two years, will step down from his role as Hulu leadership reports to Mayer and his team. Freer’s exit was just one part of ongoing changes Disney has made to bring Hulu into its folds entirely.
Hulu’s senior vice president of scripted content, Craig Erwich, stopped reporting to Freer and started reporting to Disney Television Studios chairperson Dana Walden. FX president John Landgraf was given a portion of Hulu’s original programming slate, reporting to Fox executives now within Disney. Many of Hulu’s Marvel shows were canceled as Marvel Studios took over Marvel Entertainment and its TV duties. Plus, Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed that Hulu would soon run on the BAMTech platform, the same behind-the-scenes streaming tech that powers Disney+ and of which Disney acquired a majority stake in 2017.
To say Disney is doing exceptionally well on the streaming front would still be somewhat of an understatement, but Disney isn’t just streaming. The company’s first quarter results in other divisions were also impressive. Disney’s studio division saw some big grossing titles, mostly driven by Frozen 2 and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’s collective $2.5 billion revenue at the box office. The studio division’s revenue increased from $1.8 billion to $3.8 billion in the quarter.
Update February 4th, 4:42PM ET: The company’s earnings report stated there were 26.5 million subscribers by the end of the year, but CEO Bob Iger announced on the call that Disney+ hit 28.6 million subscribers as of Monday.