In an era in which binge-watching is the new norm, Disney+ is breaking the mold — at least with its new content.
While episodes of old Disney shows can be watched one right after another, all of Disney’s new programming is being doled out in weekly installments, just like traditional cable. Then there are the shorter-than-average episodes.
The move may seem old school in a time when Netflix has normalized marathon viewing of TV shows, but it’s actually a smart move, analysts say. Especially when it comes to Disney’s “The Mandalorian.”
As a new streaming service, Disney+ has a bit of catching up to do against rival streaming giants. While the platform managed to entice 10 million U.S. subscribers at the time of its launch, that number pales in comparison with the 60.6 million U.S. subscribers that Netflix has and is smaller than the 28.5 million U.S. subscribers on Hulu.
Not to mention HBO, a premium station with a streaming service option, has 34 million U.S. subscribers and 8 million HBO Now subscribers.
While services such as Amazon Prime Video, which does not disclose its subscriber numbers, and Netflix will release an entire season of a new television show all at once, Disney has opted to follow its Hulu model when it comes to its new Disney+ shows. It is a model that HBO also follows.
HBO’s streaming service is directly tied to its HBO channel, so it releases episodes online when shows are released on TV, but Disney and Hulu aren’t linked in this way. Disney has voluntarily chosen to release episodes on a week-to-week basis.
“It’s like the good old days of having to wait for content and have that anticipation last a week and not five seconds,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.
The decision is a smart one for Disney, especially as it seeks to build its subscriber base. At launch, Disney+ had only the first of the eight episodes of “The Mandalorian” ready for viewers. Since then, it has released a new episode every Friday, which means it will take seven weeks to watch the series if you want to screen it as soon as it is available. That is two months that a subscriber will have to pay in order to see all the episodes, compared with the one-month fee a subscriber would have to pay if they only wanted to watch one season of a show on Netflix or Amazon.
Of course, there are subscribers who pay for a full year in advance, but for those who decide on a month-to-month basis what services they will sign up for, it could be the difference between staying with a service one more month or dropping it until another series entices them to pay again.
“Because Disney+ is this new platform, it gives us permission to tell ‘Star Wars’ stories in a different way,” Jon Favreau said during a interview with CNBC’s Julia Boorstin last month. “And, as an audience member, I really love these serialized, this novelization of storytelling, where you are not confined to just an hour and a half, two hours.”
Representatives for showrunners Favreau and Dave Filoni did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
The ‘Baby Yoda’ factor
The weekly releases also give the fans a chance to react to what happened in each episode and speculate about what’s to come. This became especially important for “The Mandalorian,” which managed to keep a major character a secret until the first episode aired.
The series, which has aired three episodes so far, follows a Mandalorian bounty hunter in the years after the end of “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” as the world adjusts to the fall of the Empire and seeks to build a New Republic. At the end of the first episode, fans were shocked to see a cute little creature appear.
While Disney refers to the character as “The Child,” fans have affectionately been calling him “Baby Yoda” because of his resemblance to the iconic Star Wars character and the fact that creator George Lucas has never revealed the name of Yoda’s species or his home planet.
So many questions were drummed up from the moment the child was revealed as the bounty the Mandalorian had been sent to find. Where did he come from? Why did the client (played by Werner Herzog) send so many bounty hunters after him? What did he want with the small creature?
On Netflix, subscribers would only have to wait a few seconds to watch the next episode. On Disney+ they had several days to create theories and interact with the rest of the “Star Wars” community.
“It would be illogical for Disney to dump it out all at once,” Peter Csathy, founder and chairman of digital media consulting firm CreaTV Media, said. “It would ruin the surprise.”
After all, ”‘Star Wars’ is all about anticipation,” he said. Just look at how Disney has been doling out the trailers for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
“Mandalorian” generated nearly 1 million Twitter mentions during its first two weeks on Disney+, according to data from Sprout Social, a social media management and analytics platform. This is a strong response for a show that had only aired three episodes at the time and was on a streaming service that had only been operational for 14 days.
For comparison, a show such as Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which launched its third season in July, saw 5.3 million Twitter mentions during its first two weeks on Netflix. That’s five times the social traffic for an established show that is on a platform with six times the number of U.S. subscribers.
Just like ‘Flash Gordon’
Notably, “The Mandalorian” doesn’t break the mold only because of its release schedule but also for how long its episodes are. While a typical drama on cable would have a 45-minute run, and on streaming, anywhere from 50 minutes to over an hour per episode, “The Mandalorian” clocks in between 29 and 38 minutes per episode.
“Many of the people who are watching it will be on their mobile devices so it’s logical for them to program it differently,” Csathy said. He noted that the audience for “The Mandalorian,” while appealing to adults who grew up with “Star Wars,” is for a younger demographic.
“The form factor may be different,” he said.
The shorter episodes are also reminiscent of the “Flash Gordon” serials that inspired George Lucas and that had a run time of around 25 minutes.
“Each episode is like a chapter of a book,” Dergarabedian said. “Very novel and cool that they are doing it this way.”
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