Last summer, when Warner Bros. Discovery started removing TV shows from Max, people weren’t worried. Everyone blamed the famously cost-conscious David Zaslav, since he’d just taken over Warner Bros. Discovery. Folks just assumed that this move was a cynical tax ploy from a famously cost-conscious manager, not a harbinger of streaming’s future.
But then Disney—led by beloved Hollywood CEO Bob Iger—announced a $1-1.5 billion in “content impairment charges” in May. Parsing that accounting speak, that would mean Disney would pull/remove more than a hundred TV shows and films from Hulu and Disney+ last month.
Now it feels real, doesn’t it?
Since Disney made this announcement, I’ve wanted to dive deep into the removals, both from a strategy and data perspective. I have so many thoughts, I’m just going to do an old-fashioned Buzzfeed/HuffPo style listicle. But before we get into it, I want to make something clear:
This bums me out.
I wish I could be more elegant, but I can’t. Some of these shows were just basic cable documentary series (think NatGeo’s Race to the Center of the Earth) or silly family-friendly reality shows (like Be Our Chef or Disney Fairytale Weddings, fun shows but not high art) But a lot of, if not most of, these movies and TV shows were really high quality work by some very talented people. My editor/researcher tried to watch a bunch of the movies the week before they left Disney+, including The One and Only Ivan the night before that movie was removed. From the concept to the special effects, he thought it was excellent, especially the acting.
It’s a shame that people won’t be able to watch this charming film any time soon and, even worse, that it’s unclear when they’ll be able to watch it again.
It’s also a shame that not that many people got to see this film in the first place (it didn’t go to theaters) if they even heard about it. This is why I write so much about “business models” and their inadvertent or unintended consequences; if Hollywood doesn’t have a great plan for making money, that will result in fewer great films and TV shows getting made and fewer people watching them. But I want as many people to see as many great works of art as possible and that requires having a business model that works.
Yes, the past few years looks more and more like a content bubble driving by inflated expectations for streaming. Sure, I saw this coming and tried to warn people, but I take no satisfaction in being right. As the bubble bursts, instead of joy, It kind of just makes me feel terrible that I didn’t do a better job of convincing people that this was coming.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into my thoughts on all of these removals.
How I Collected the “Data” On Disney+ Removals
Before I get to my strategy thoughts, I wanted to share some quick thoughts on the data I used for this article. I found a few websites that listed the shows or films that were getting pulled from Disney+ and Hulu. I used three sources, first Deadline and The Verge, but later I found a very thorough list from StreamClues (H/T Josh Shepherd on Twitter for the link) that was the most comprehensive list I found. I may have missed some titles that got removed, but I doubt it.
From those, I compiled a list, pulled any data I have from my various databases, and found the data for any titles I hadn’t collected previously. After I found all of these titles, I double-checked (multiple times) if the title was actually removed.
After reviewing the list, I ended with 120 titles slated for removal. Of those, 14 are still on the streaming services, while six titles were “saved” due to community/social pressure. Interestingly, of the titles that are still streaming, all fourteen are branded with “NatGeo”, while the six titles that were “saved” were all Disney+ Originals, but from all of Disney’s various brands:
1. These Removals Show the Streaming Glut in Its Full Glory
Time to hop into the data. The first thing that popped out in the data is that Disney removed a lot of “Originals”—i.e. first run, exclusive titles—in this initial purge. Of the 120 titles that were removed, 80 were either Disney+ or Hulu Originals.
And yes, the titles do seem tilted towards Disney+, as a majority of titles (77) were on Disney+ exclusively, whereas 5 were on both Disney+ and Hulu and the rest (38) were Hulu only.
2. Disney Didn’t Remove Its Biggest IP…Except for Documentaries
As I compiled this list, I also noticed that Disney, for the most part, protected their biggest IP/brands, namely Marvel and Star Wars. To show this here’s the shows by brand/channel, which was one of the more interesting looks at it:
(To figure out these brands, my rule of thumb was either “What tile did Disney display this show on Disney+?” Or “What brand was on the marketing key images? Seven titles didn’t have any specific brand or channel attached, so I left them as “Disney+ Originals.)
Looking at this list, very few MCU or Star Wars TV shows (and no movies) were pulled from Disney+, which isn’t a surprise. The only scripted MCU title was Marvel’s The Runaways, but that show was on Hulu, not Disney+. (Somehow Marvel’s Hit-Monkey is still on Hulu.) A handful of franchise documentaries did get pulled (or got threatened to be removed), like Marvel 616 and Pixar’s Beyond Infinity: Buzz and the Journey to Lightyear. Marvel’s MPower and Voices Rising: The Music of Wakanda Forever ended up not getting removed after pushback.
The biggest, most notable non-Star Wars/MCU IP that got removed was probably Lucasfilm’s Willow (and Willow: Behind the Magic), followed by Artemis Fowl and Y: The Last Man. (I’m a huge fan of the comic book.) After that, it’s older Disney (The Mighty Ducks) and 20th Century Fox IP (Cheaper By The Dozen). And films based on kids books like Black Beauty, Flora & Ulysses, The One and Only Ivan, and Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made.
3. This Is Just the Beginning…
I’ve heard rumblings that Disney is planning on removing even more content later this summer, and that this round was just the first round of cuts. This makes sense to me, since they could be gauging the PR pushback, how much these cuts affect subscriber rates/retention/churn, and more. But there’s definitely way more underperforming shows that Disney could remove from Hulu and Disney+, as I’ll talk about later.
But it’s not just Disney. I expect at least a few other streamers to start removing underperforming shows. Peacock and Paramount+ are almost certainly going to follow Disney and Warner Bros. Discovery’s lead, since their streaming services are losing tons of money and they both have released a bunch of under-performing shows, some with likely almost no viewership.
That said, Apple and Amazon are the wild cards. With no cost pressure, they can afford to lose money. But since these businesses also don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, they could always just change their minds too. Apple has tons of cash (and virtually no library content) so I don’t see them pulling underperforming shows from their streamer. of course, Apple has tons and tons of flops, way more than anyone else, but I don’t think they’ll change course for a number of years.
Prime Video is more of a question mark. Whether or not they start removing shows likely depends on how heavily Prime Video has amortized their content spends. If belts tighten at Amazon, I could see Prime Video doing the same thing as Disney and Max. (Recently, Amazon warned of “headwinds” in their actual cash cow, Amazon Web Services.)
I see no strategic indications that Netflix would start preemptively pulling shows, but we may see them allow more shows “expire” when their contracts are up, which has been happening more and more in recent years. (Netflix doesn’t own many of their initial Original titles.) While Netflix does lead streamers in profitability, in the worst case scenario, if they want to increase profits further, they might let even more shows expire earlier or quietly remove older, underperforming original shows and films, but I’m very skeptical that this happens any time soon.
4. Disney Removed A Lot of Shows Made By/With the Supper Club Production Company
The famed production company, Supper Club, behind Netflix shows like Chef’s Table and award-winning documentaries like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, had thirteen TV shows that were removed or slated to be removed from Disney+.
I think this says less about the genre (documentaries) than it does about signing the right deal for those documentaries (or any content, really). I’m guessing that these documentaries didn’t come cheap and, in retrospect, didn’t justify the huge costs/licensing fees. (Which is also the danger of deficit-financing new ventures, like the Disney+ streaming service. If there’s no pressure to not turn a profit/make money, you wind up over-spending when you shouldn’t.)
5. In Some Ways, “Removal” Is a Negotiating Tactic
Speaking of licensing fees, I wonder how much of this is about renegotiating bad contracts. To me, the show that comes to mind if The World According to Jeff Goldblum. (My researcher watched every episodes and loved it; was he the only one?). Right now, are Jeff Goldblum and his production company not receiving another dime for this show?
I’m guessing that Disney has come back to him and his people, asking to renegotiate to air the show on NatGeo to try and raise its profile. Due to tax reasons, there’s a set time frame where The World According to Jeff Goldblum can’t return to Disney+, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it moves to other channels/streamers, or even Disney+ in the future…after contacts have been renegotiated. Or they could sell it somewhere else to recoup some of the investment.
The rest of this article is for paid subscribers of the Entertainment Strategy Guy, so if you want to find out…
- The Nielsen, TV Time and IMDb ratings for all of these removals…
- How streaming cancellations compare to broadcast in the 1990s…
- Streamings “discovery” problem and three solutions to fix it.
- How the “dogs not barking” lists predicted which titles would get removed…
- How this relates to the “theatrical versus streaming” question…
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