Disney is using Star Wars to drive people to its streaming apps

There is an app for this.
There is an app for this.
Image: Sandy Huffaker/Disney XD
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Ever since Disney acquired Lucasfilm back in 2012, Star Wars fans have eagerly been waiting for the company to unveil new original content from the Star Wars Universe. That moment has finally arrived today—but only if you’re a Disney Channel subscriber using one of the company’s three streaming apps.

The new animated special Star Wars Rebels: Spark of Rebellion, set between the events of Star Wars Episodes III and IV, is available for authenticated subscribers via the WATCH Disney X​D app (on smartphones, tablets and WATCHDisneyX​D.com) for a full week before its Oct. 3 TV debut, on Disney Channel. That special will kick off the new Disney X​D series Star Wars Rebels, where again, each of the first season’s episodes will debut first on WATCH Disney X​D.

It’s Disney’s boldest move yet in their ongoing efforts to dominate each new platform in which audiences watch TV. Disney Channel’s three WATCH apps (one for each network: WATCH Disney Channel, WATCH Disney X​D and WATCH Disney Junior) have been downloaded 23.5 million times since their June 2012 launch, and have generated more than 2 billion video views.

“It’s critical for us to make sure we’re on the platforms the kids are consuming content on. And we’re learning, the size of the screen doesn’t really matter, it’s the content that matters most,” Lauren DeVillier, Vice President of Digital Media at Disney Channels Worldwide, told Quartz. “There’s a lot of repeat viewing with kids content; they’ll watch the same episode a thousand times. So especially with that audience, it’s an opportunity to be on the platforms they’re on.”

Last November, Disney tested the strength of its WATCH platform by debuting a new series, Sheriff Callie’s Wild West, exclusively on WATCH Disney Junior for a full two months before it aired on TV. “There was a lot of discussion around, would people find it?” said DeVillier. They did: the show had 23 million views during those two months, and still drew a sizable audience on TV. “We were very pleased. We didn’t see the cannibalization we were concerned about, and it seemed like the overall consumption just grew, especially in the kid space.”

Now, Disney routinely premieres its most anticipated shows on WATCH (including this summer’s series Girl Meets World, an update of the hit ’90s sitcom Boy Meets World). In August, the WATCH Disney Channel debut of the original movie How to Build a Better Boy was viewed more than 1 million times on the app, while the Aug. 15 premiere still drew 4.56 million viewers, making the top-rated cable program that night. Even better for Disney: while advertisements do not run on Disney Channel, WATCH Disney Channel episodes do contain ads. (Ads run on all Disney X​D platforms, but do not run on any Disney Junior platforms).

And Star Wars Rebels stands to make an even bigger digital splash. “For something like Star Wars and that franchise, this is a great opportunity to go after a larger audience,” said DeVillier, noting that they hope to attract parents who grew up with the original films, as well as their children. “The excitement around that as a parent, and what you can bring to your kids, is going to be fantastic for us.”

While each of Disney’s three channels target a different demographic, the youngest audience—the Disney Junior demo of kids age two to seven—tends to use the WATCH app the most. “There’s more time for them to be engaging with it. We see that passback a lot: ‘I need to get something done, so I’m going to hand my phone or my iPad over to my kid,’” said DeVillier.

Despite the success of the WATCH apps, 94 % of the Disney Channel audience still watch via live TV or DVR, down from 98 % in 2013. While slow and steady might ultimately win the race, for now, “live TV is still the primary platform for kids across the country,” said DeVillier.