Disney’s streaming service is booming while its other businesses are on hold

All smiles for Baby Yoda.
All smiles for Baby Yoda.
Image: Disney
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The Disney+ streaming service has more than 50 million global subscribers five months after launching, Disney announced yesterday. It had 29 million subscribers as of early February.

“This bodes well for our continued expansion,” Disney’s streaming head, Kevin Mayer, said in a statement.

That is an understatement. The total puts Disney well ahead of both its own projections and also analyst forecasts. The company told investors last year it was hoping Disney+ would reach between 60 and 90 million subscribers worldwide by 2024. Meanwhile, most analysts believed the service wouldn’t hit 50 million subscribers until 2022.

But neither Disney nor its observers accounted for the possibility of a global health crisis forcing hundreds of millions of people to stay home. As a result, streaming TV usage has skyrocketed: Time spent on streaming services was up 34% in March, according to Nielsen.

The news seems to be assuaging investors’ concerns over Disney’s parks and movie businesses, which have been shutdown since mid-March. As of this writing, Disney’s stock is up more than 5% today.

The closure of movie theaters around the world could drive more sign-ups to Disney+. Artemis Fowl, a fantasy film based on the book of the same name which was supposed to hit theaters in May, will be released directly on the streaming service instead. Disney executive chairman Bob Iger told Barron’s this week the company may put other upcoming movies directly on Disney+.

After launching in the United States in November, Disney+ was rolled out in several Western European countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, in March. The service also debuted in India on March 29.

As is often the case when a company brags about its subscriber numbers, there are caveats with Disney’s total. Verizon is offering US customers a free year of Disney+, which is likely inflating the figure to some degree. It’s unclear how many of Disney’s US subscribers are free signups, and how many of those will ultimately choose to extend their subscriptions when the free year is up.

Still, acquiring 50 million subscribers in a few months is impressive. Disney was on track to smash its projections even before the pandemic.

Netflix, for comparison, needed 17 years to reach 50 million subscribers. The times were very different then: The company launched as a DVD rental service in 1997 and didn’t start streaming content until 2010. It didn’t make original content until 2013.

Disney not only has the advantage of being Disney—perhaps the most popular entertainment brand in history—but also launching into a world in which streaming is the norm. Disney+ has been so successful so quickly in part because Netflix trained consumers to expect it.