Disney confirms streaming plans for Marvel, Star Wars

The US studio Disney has moved to super-power its planned streaming platform, confirming today that its key Marvel and Lucasfilm franchises would move in-house.

That means The Avengers, Iron-Man and Thor franchises, as well as the Star Wars films - both the existing Star Wars "saga" and planned standalone features - would move onto the still in-development Disney-branded streaming service.

Until now the streaming platform Netflix has had the rights to those properties.

Disney had flagged the possibility last month when it announced the bulk of its library of Disney and Pixar content - notably its key animated features, such as Frozen, and its live-action films, such as Beauty and the Beast - would move onto a Disney-branded service.

The studio plans to launch that service by 2019.

Last month's announcement was significant because it represents an emerging trend in the content industry, away from the model where studios sell content to broadcasters and streaming platforms, and towards one where studios sell content direct to consumers.

US studio CBS, has accelerated its plans to launch a standalone streaming service in Australia, following its acquisition of Ten, while another studio, Warner Bros, has confirmed this week plans for a DC Comics-branded streaming service which will offer subscribers access to a streaming library.

And in a parallel play, Disney is planning to launch an ESPN-branded sports streaming service in 2018, which promises 10,000 sporting events annually including baseball, soccer and tennis.

If you think Star Wars is big business you haven't even begun to grasp the financial colossus of sports rights.

The impact of today's announcement was relatively soft: the sharemarket did not hammer Netflix, though its likely they got most of the punching out of their system last month, when the earlier Disney announcement gave the streaming platform a seven per cent haircut.

For traditional television players, either free-to-air channels, or play 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.

In the case of Netflix, that business has been slowly shifting emphasis away from acquired content and towards its own library of "originals", such as House of Cards and, more recently, shows like Bloodline and Grace and Frankie.

The new Disney-Netflix paradigm is just a sign of a larger shift in the business.

The Australian streaming platform Stan, for example, will likely lose a slab of acquired content from CBS Studios when CBS launches its own platform.

Ditto Foxtel and HBO when HBO's longer term global expansion plays out.

The impact on Australia's free-to-air broadcasters by the larger trend is more difficult to measure; at present acquired content - that is, US series - do not dominate the ratings ladders but there are cycles (in television's very cyclical business) where they do.

Remember Lost? Desperate Housewives? Both of those programs, which topped the ratings in Australia, were Disney-owned. And ER and Friends? Both chart-toppers owned by Warner Bros. Or imagine a Nine Network where The Big Bang Theory was held back by Warner Bros to front a studio-owned streaming platform?

Multiply that by two dozen shows across a half-dozen studios and the larger impact of the trend starts to become clear.

The answer, of course, is original content. Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos knows it.

"We started making original content five years ago, betting this would happen," he said recently. And anyone who doesn't know it yet is burying their head in the sand.

But here's the rub for international markets - such as Australia - where programmers have historically shopped for high quality acquired content and where "local content", at least in unscripted terms, is usually driven by noisy reality franchises which make a loud bang followed by a long fizzle.

It takes only so much to make a television program that a free-to-air audience will swallow. After all, it's free. (Or, at least, advertiser-supported.) But how much harder is it to make content that people will pay for on an hour by hour, or library by library, basis?

We may soon find out.

The story Disney confirms streaming plans for Marvel, Star Wars first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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