From the early days of television to the current age of streaming, Disney’s efforts on TV and its theme park division have been synergistic. While most movie studios were hesitant to make programming for TV, but Walt, ever the visionary, saw it as both an outlet for content and a way of promoting Disney and its products.
Before Disneyland opened, as late as 1952, there were only 108 television stations in the United States. A few large cities had two channels. Most had just one.
At that point, the FCC decided to make more stations available. CBS and NBC were the leading networks and a struggling ABC was attempting to expand its reach across the nation.
Indeed, ABC agreed to help finance the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California -- investing a half-million dollars and guaranteeing $4.5 million in debt primarily to persuade Disney to enter into a 7-year contract to produce television content for the nascent network.
ABC needed this content to attract viewers as it attempted to provide a third option for people across the country. Later in history the Walt Disney Company would purchase ABC, bringing things full circle.
A big part of this content was TV shows that entertained, but also served to promote Disneyland, indeed Disney’s first regularly schedule TV program was titled, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.
This effort to expand consumer options was to continue, first as broadcasters opened more channels, then as cable and satellite TV developed there was an explosion of options. It became not uncommon for families to have access to more than 100 channels. With this growth in options came a specialization in content. Consumers could not only select a channel, but they could now select a channel focused on a specific interest: The Food Network or Disney’s own Disney Channel.
Streaming, though, moves consumer choice to the next level. Now viewers don’t have to select a channel and hope the programming that night is good, nor do they have to select a genre, say the Sci-Fi Channel, and hope they like what is on. Now consumers can select the exact and specific program they wish to watch.
The growth of streaming services coincides with the availability of inexpensive digital storage, which means that the streaming services can hold unlimited amounts of content. Whereas even a large bookstore could only handle a small percentage of the books on earth, over the Internet, one can buy almost any book. With streaming services, once a program is created, the book, or movie or music, etc., can reside in a digital file at almost no cost, forever.
Disconnect at the Parks
For many years, there has been a kind of struggle at Disney Parks. Most attendees are happy to interact with characters and stories that they know and love. These are the most famous characters, such as Mickey and Minnie, and, also, the most current ones – nowadays, examples might be Black Panther, Captain Marvel and all the Avengers. Yet there is a whole separate market for Disney products and experiences, call it the enthusiast market, which is currently left out of Disney’s basket of offerings.
Most Disney enthusiasts interface with Disney and its products more than most customers. Because they do things such as visit the parks frequently, they want novel experiences. They want characters that they have never met; they want overlays that they have never seen; they want enriching backdrops and environments in which to meet the characters.
Yet these dedicated Disney fans are always disappointed with one fact: Disney seldom uses older intellectual properties that these fans love or might come to love if they were introduced. Disney is a business, so it makes sense for the company to promote only popular properties and properties it is actively trying to sell. This phenomenon is felt by fans across all the divisions -- the theme parks when creating new rides, shows, parades, and areas; the films when deciding whether to make sequels/remakes or original movies; ShopDisney, when considering what merchandise to create; and so on.
However, as of November 12th, 2019, the ‘times they are a changin’ … Disney+, the new Disney streaming service, promises to bring a new era to the Walt Disney Company, as Disney+ is a major new initiative that might fundamentally alter the way people consume Disney media.
With a new age for Disney entertainment, it is time for the priorities of the entire company to shift. While it will feature many new series and movies to entice people to subscribe to the streaming service, Disney+ has another major appeal: the catalogue of pre-existing movie and television content that it will offer. At the last D23 Expo and on the official Disney+ Instagram page, this Disney+ catalogue has been highlighted extensively.
With its vast backlog of content being such a large selling point, Disney will need to reconsider its priorities across the divisions. No longer is Disney just selling the latest releases, but the company will be selling the entire Disney library. This is great news for Disney fans who have long wanted to see increased representation for some of the old and more obscure Disney intellectual properties.
For the theme parks, this means that no longer are entities like The Emperor's New Groove, The Rescuers, and Adventures of the Gummi Bears out-of-date content, but these properties will become more well known among Disney audiences with the advent of Disney+. Kids will now have access to shows that are decades old as options on their Disney+ screen, and so will want to see their new favorite shows represented when they visit Disney Parks. They will want toys and games that incorporate these new favorites – even if the origin of these characters was long ago.
When choosing characters for future parades, shows, and meet-and-greets, Disney will need to consider these fan bases. The same can be said for future attractions and land expansions. While Toy Story, Marvel, and Star Wars may currently be the hottest properties, tomorrow, there will be a growing fanbase for content that is now very difficult to access. So, children and adults alike will now grow up loving Bedknobs and Broomsticks or The Reluctant Dragon or other previously obscure Disney titles. There will have to be a shift within the company to cater to all these new fans of presently lesser-known older Disney intellectual properties.
This change in fan favor will go far beyond the parks. For example, the video game operation will want to cash in on these new fan bases by incorporating characters from older movies into new games. In addition, the film-making division might start considering theatrical sequels to more obscure properties or at least live-action remakes. This ripple effect will be profoundly felt across the company, so Disney should get ahead of this future.
It seems likely that this future will consist of a much more particularized fan base. For Disney, it is fortunate that other technologies are arising that may make it possible for Disney to serve a wildly autonomous clientele. 3D Printing, for example, might enable Disney to produce toys to order. So if customers show up wanting a toy based on Gadget Hackwrench, a character from Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, that toy can be as available as Mickey. Bringing this technology down to the store level might be crucial to serve fans, and make money by serving those fans –when these fans want toys from a very wide range of stories.
As rides move more to Virtual Reality and screen-based experiences, it becomes easier to give people a personalized experience. The same ride can take one guest to the world of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, while another guest travels to the Star Wars universe. This massive change in the consumer market presents both challenges and opportunities for Disney.. Disney executives need to take steps now to make sure every division is prepared to deal with particularistic consumer preferences that Disney+ will allow and create.
It is an enormous opportunity. Instead of having, say 30 well-loved characters, the value of Disney intellectual property can zoom as it turns out that due to Disney+, Disney has 500 popular characters. Realizing this value though, means that Disney executives need to insist that the theme parks, the gaming division, the cruise ships, the music division and more – take steps now to profit from renewed interest in all that has been locked away in the Disney Vault – but is now becoming accessible to the children…and adults…of the world.