Disney+ arrives in the US this winter, but a UK release is nowhere to be seen – we take a look at what’s going on.
This November, Disney launches one of its biggest-ever gambles into the world. Disney+ is the streaming service it’s launching to wrestle market share from Netflix, and it was the decision to launch it that fuelled the firm’s purchase of Fox for north of $70bn earlier this year. The thinking being that if Disney was launching its own streaming service, it was going to need a lot of material to fill it with. Fox fitted that bill.
But as many have noticed, it’s hardly a universal rollout that’s coming in November. Rather that Disney+ is initially launching in just a few territories.
There’s the US and Canada, obviously, that get the service on November 12th. That’s the same day it launches in the Netherlands, the only European territory with a firm release date. Australia and New Zealand follow next, on November 19th. The rest of the world can content itself with a vague promise of further territories being confirmed in 2020.
Why, then, the hold up? Well, the answer – in the UK at least – may be something to do with existing deals that Disney has with Sky.
It’s little secret that Disney was in the running to buy Sky, as part of its overall purchase of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox TV and film empire. Yet there was a fly in the ointment: Universal’s parent company, Comcast. It had been in the bidding for Fox, and when it became clear that Disney was going to win that particular battle, it turned its attention purely to Sky.
What’s more, it won. Rupert Murdoch’s companies only had a 39% control of Sky, and Comcast got its chequebook out and purchased Skyfor some $30bn. You can’t help but feel that the biggest winner in all of this is Rupert Murdoch, so that’s a chipper thought.
Disney, when it realised that Comcast was going to wrestle majority control of Sky, sold its stake in the company to the firm. And now, Comcast owns Sky’s pay television platforms, operating in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria and Italy. It also owns Sky’s streaming service in Spain, as well as Now TV.
Note what those territories have in common? Not one of them has even a rumoured release date for the Disney+ service. And that’s likely because Disney has existing contracts in place with Sky for its films and television shows. Contracts that aren’t particularly easy to get out of.
Remember that with its collection of Netflix series, Marvel and Disney had to let them run to the end of their respective seasons before taking the rights back. Whilst it feels inevitable that most Disney material will be taken away from Sky eventually – or at least any exclusivity removed – that process is going to take time. And the thinking is that it’s waiting those deals out that’s causing the hold up for Disney+ in the UK.
There may be more to it than that, of course, and even in the US, Comcast and Disney have working relationships and deals in place.
But in the case of Sky in the UK, it has a deal in place for a dedicated Sky Disney channel on the firm’s movies platform, and that contract is apparently not due to expire until next year. Likewise, there are deals in place that the firm has inherited for Fox movies. It’s hardly likely that Comcast will have much incentive to end such a deal early, and it may be a case that Disney has to wait it out, or offer Comcast a fresh deal that allows it access to films and TV shows, just with tempered exclusivity.
As things stand, Disney+ will be streaming Avengers: Endgame in the US before the end of the year. The contractual likelihood is that even if Disney+ had launched in the UK, Disney wouldn’t – due to pre-existing deals – be able to stream Endgame before anyone else here.
Overseas, Disney also has deals in place for its films and TV shows around the world, and it’s hard not to think now that it’s those that have slowed its Disney+ ambitions. As a Deadline report from mid-August notes, “it is expected to launch in a number of other territories and the studio is in negotiations to make this happen”.
Disney hasn’t been public with its plans for a UK launch date, and it may be we don’t hear anything concrete until 2020 (although that’s speculation on my part). But it’s clear that – in spite of its negotiating muscle – there are tough conversations ahead or already ongoing with many existing partners. Does Disney just want Disney and Fox catalogue films on its own streaming services, or will it look to bring in revenue by still allowing others to stream them, on a non-exclusive basis? That’s one of the many questions in the mix.
The clear position at the moment is that come November, when the Disney+ service launches in the US, it’ll do so with a bunch of material – including hugely-anticipated live action Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian – that viewers in the UK have no official access to whatsoever. In the absence of an official way, it’s not going out on a massive limb to suggest some will find less official, illegal methods to watch such shows. And with that in mind, it’s clearly in Disney’s interests to plug this gap, and plug it quickly.
UPDATE – and thanks to Film Stories reader David Bedwell for alerting me. Might this be a clue as to a potential UK release at least?
— Star Wars UK (@StarWarsUK) August 24, 2019
Given The Mandalorian is Disney+ exclusive, ‘early 2020’ is very vague, but at least it’s something…
For now, whilst Disney continues to recruit key personnel around the world for the Disney+ service and the negotiations behind it, the best I can say is that it’s likely to launch in the UK next year. But in lieu of anything official being announced, even that is just guesswork. Given its recent drop in profits, and the amount it’s gambling on Disney+, it’s nonetheless very much in the company’s interest to get the service rolled out around the world a lot sooner than later…
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