One year later, Disney Plus proves itself an example to rival services

(Logo: Walt Disney Company/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

After a full year in existence, it’s not hard to argue that Disney Plus is doing great.

The service, which official turns one year old on Thursday, has more than 60 million worldwide subscribers who are willing to pay $7 a month or $70 a year to access commercial-free movies and original shows on virtually every Internet-connected platform.

Its explosive growth has been fueled in part by its robust back catalog of popular animated movies combined with its Star Wars franchise, Disney Channel shows and the entire back catalog and current library of The Simpsons. Its agreement early on to provide some Verizon Wireless customers with free access to the service didn’t hurt things, either.

Things have been going so well for Disney Plus that the entire Walt Disney Company — including its film studios and broadcast properties — reorganized last month around the future of streaming, placing Disney and its sister services Hulu and ESPN Plus at the core of its operations.

“The shakeup is a public display of confidence in Disney’s new and rapidly growing business,” Julia Alexander, a reporter for the website The Verge, wrote in an article last month.

It couldn’t have come at a better time, too: Disney’s theme parks have been largely closed since the start of the year due to the ongoing coronavirus health pandemic, cutting into the company’s revenue.

The delay of its theatrical releases didn’t help matters much either — like other companies, Disney was unable to distribute its films to movie theaters because those businesses were forced to shut down during the health crisis.

Had Disney Plus not launched a year earlier, the pandemic could have hit the company hard — it’s had a disastrous impact on its closest rivals, including Comcast (NBC, Universal Pictures) and ViacomCBS (CBS, Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures). Instead, Disney responded to the shifting economic conditions by releasing its live action reboot of “Mulan” — which was supposed to be its summer blockbuster — through Disney Plus, asking viewers to pay a one-time fee of $30 to stream the movie as much as they want.

Disney Plus’ momentum has given its rivals hope that their own streaming services might fare well in a market largely dominated by Netflix, Google’s YouTube and Amazon Prime Video.

Some have found success by their own measure: Comcast quickly racked up more than 22 million subscribers to its freemium streaming service Peacock, which offers a mixture of NBC shows, Dreamworks and Universal Pictures films and licensed content from third parties. Some have argued Comcast’s ability to sign up users is more impressive because it’s available in the United States only; Disney Plus, on the other hand, includes subscribers in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia toward its count.

Others have struggled to match Disney Plus: AT&T subsidiary WarnerMedia merged its HBO Go and HBO Now services into a single offering called HBO Max earlier this year, but its high price point coupled with its lack of support for two of the biggest streaming television platforms in the industry have stifled its growth. The company says it has over 33 million HBO subscribers, but a complicated web of pay TV distribution deals and the company’s decision not to support Roku and Amazon Fire TV devices makes it difficult to measure exactly how many subscribers can — and are — taking advantage of HBO Max, if they can even access it at all.

Meanwhile, Disney remains on track to build out its streaming services, with Disney Plus taking center stage at the company. Disney has plans to launch more than 50 movies and original programs in the coming months, according to reports, and if even a fraction of those shows can prove to be as big a hit as the Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian,” Disney might double its subscription numbers by the time it turns two years old.