Disney's streaming service is Netflix-size disruption

Beauty and the Beast was a billion dollar-earner for Disney earlier this year. Photo: Walt Disney
Beauty and the Beast was a billion dollar-earner for Disney earlier this year. Photo: Walt Disney

The news that the US film and television studio Disney was moving to launch a streaming service might not have seemed like an otherwise significant headline.

After all, these days, doesn't everyone have a streaming service?

But the stunning move, which would pull Disney's content off the dominant streaming platform Netflix and onto a Disney-branded one by 2019, is perhaps the most tectonic shift in the broadcasting landscape since the launch of Netflix itself.

Disney, you see, isn't any ordinary US film and television studio. In addition to its own library, which includes Frozen and Beauty and the Beast, Disney also owns Lucasfilm (which makes Star Wars) and Marvel (which makes everything else).

Which makes the content play for a proposed Disney streaming platform one of the most potentially disruptive in recent memory. Or, in short, "hello Netflix, welcome to the rest of us."

Significantly, after its US launch, the still-unnamed Disney platform would roll out globally. Like Netflix and HBO. Which means the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia will be early targets.

Coming only a few days after CBS announced its platform CBS All Access had global rollout plans of its own, the emerging pattern suggests the US studios are consolidating a larger move into the global direct-to-consumer business.

For countries such as Australia, where most multi-channel businesses populate their schedules with acquired content, such a move would have a huge impact, cutting out "the middle man" so to speak, and ultimately taking the content industry's blue chip output off the open market.

Moving into the "direct-to-consumer" space means that Disney is planning to kick the stool out from under the traditional television business while the noose is perilously close to its neck.

For traditional television players, either free-to-air channels or pay television platforms such as Foxtel or, in the US, Direct TV and Spectrum, the impact will vary, depending on the degree to which they are dependent on acquired content.

Make no mistake there is still a vast wilderness out there, populated with thousands of smaller production companies and channels - but there are only a handful of big players, so when they shuffle around the chessboard everyone tends to feel it.

The move also represents a sudden broadening of the disruption space.

Until now, much of the discussion of "disruption" has followed one line of thinking: Netflix vs who?

Mostly the answer to that question was premium channels such as HBO and Showtime because the key pieces of the Netflix pie - shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black - seemed specifically aimed at undermining those competitors.

But in the last few years Netflix has broadened its content offering, with show such as Fuller House, which are plainly pitched at an audience who might otherwise be watching network television.

In Disney's case, the deal will take Disney and Pixar movies, and all future content, off the current rights holder, Netflix.

That means the planned platform would kick off with Frozen 2, Toy Story 4 and, later, the live-action The Lion King; to ice the cake, Disney says it will make a "significant investment" in new and acquired content for the platform.

Less certain - at least for now - are the company's plans for its Star Wars and Marvel assets.

Presently they are big earners using the traditional model of auctioning them off to a third party broadcaster, so Disney says that's where they will remain. For now.

The key to unravelling the puzzle is control of children's television.

It's an ironic Holy Grail for the global television business, given most of Australia's free-to-air television networks have historically viewed it like a drunk aunt.

In the US, where portable technology is powered by a (mostly) 21st century internet, children's consumption of content, particularly via mobile, is rising sharply.

Every platform has sunk money into kid's TV; HBO acquired the iconic Sesame Street, Netflix has a dedicated Netflix Kids window into its system, allowing younger viewers freedom within a smaller ecosystem.

In that sense, television streaming is about to become all ears: though there are many companies which populate the global kid's TV space, few possess the content library and cultural footprint of Disney.

This story Disney's streaming service is Netflix-size disruption first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.