The prudishness of Disney+ means it will never be a true Netflix rival

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Disney+ has had an extraordinary start for a streaming service which had everything to lose when it launched back in November. Buoyed by the surprise success of the Star Wars spinoff TV series The Mandalorian, it has already managed to attract an astounding 28.6 million subscribers to the platform in the United States.

But besides The Mandalorian, Disney+ has failed to make a dent with any of its other serialised content, in large part due to the service’s lack of new and original programming. Even before the coronavirus hit the entertainment industry and forced Disney to shut down production of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and WandaVision, there were already a host of reports detailing Disney+’s production woes. Various trade publications had already been hinting that the streaming service was having some serious existential issues when it came to original programming.

Now as the service finally reaches the UK, it seems that The Mandalorian could remain the company’s only flagship original show for a while. While the coronavirus has certainly killed some of Disney+’s original content, the company’s own prudishness was already doing that, too.

Since January, Disney has put announced original shows like Obi-Wan and Lizzie McGuire on hold, shifted some to the Disney-owned Hulu and outright cancelled shows partway-through development. One reason could be because these programmes reached outside the realms of what Disney considers to be ‘family-friendly’. Take American Dad! and Family Guy, for example, while Disney had the opportunity to put both on the platform, it chose to place the more adult-oriented shows on Hulu instead.

Those strictly family-friendly parameters might stop Disney+ from ever becoming the threatening force against Netflix that analysts had predicted it would become shortly after the service was first announced back in 2018.

Back in January, production of the highly anticipated Lizzie McGuire reboot was shut down after it had filmed just two episodes. The original creator Terri Minsky was forced to exit her role as showrunner, with sources close to production telling Variety that Minsky and leading actress Hilary Duff wanted to create a more adult take on the series. It was a move that made sense, considering Duff was playing a character about to turn 30.

Sources told Variety that while Disney was onboard at the time, it ultimately wanted something more family-friendly that would appeal to kids. Production of the Lizzie McGuire show is now back in a redevelopment phase. When or if it will ever be back, we’ll have to wait and see.

It echoes another move Disney made in late February, when the streaming service booted the Love, Simon TV adaptation, now called Love, Victor, to Hulu after it was slated for a release on Disney+. The series, which revolves around the life of a gay teen muddling through high school and a hectic life at home, triggered discussions about what Disney constitutes a family-friendly show.

Love, Victor and Lizzie McGuire joined a number of shows which had been deemed too adult for Disney+. High Fidelity, which was initially ordered for a first season run on Disney+, for example, was also moved to Hulu. Book of Enchantment, a series focusing on Disney villains was reportedly scrapped for being too dark.

Disney+ subscribers will also note that the streaming service has The Simpsons, something that Tom Harrington, a senior TV analyst at Enders Analysis says is in itself an interesting move. “The Simpsons is a more Hulu show than it is a Disney+ show, but they needed that because they needed to grow scale,” he explains. “When it first launched, it was an antidote to Disney, in that it was the first real cartoon hit not explicitly for children.”

Love, Victor’s shift to Hulu prompted Hilary Duff to make a plea for Disney to free Lizzie McGuire from the platform and move it to Hulu. “I’d be doing a disservice to everyone by limiting the realities of a 30-year-old’s journey to live under the ceiling of a PG rating,” Duff wrote in an Instagram post. “It’s important to me that just as her experiences as a preteen/teenager navigating life were authentic, her next chapters are equally as real and relatable. It would be a dream if Disney would let us move the show to Hulu, if they were interested, and I could bring this beloved character to life again.”

With the kinds of family-friendly restrictions that Disney+ is putting on itself, the streaming service will likely never attract as wide of an audience as Netflix. Instead, what we’re starting to see is an expansion of the Disney Channel into streaming. “Netflix is different in that they make something for everybody,” says Harrington. “Netflix doesn’t worry that much about its brand outside of providing entertainment, they’re not gatekeepers of some sort of morality or anything like that, which, in the case of Disney, has built up a reputation.”

And subscribers are already spending way more time watching Netflix than they are doing on Disney+, according to a study released earlier this month by video-tracking company Reelgood. The company analysed data from 45,000 US-based users currently subscribed to both services and found that three-quarters of them were watching Netflix more than Disney+. Putting together a list of the top 50 most watched shows and films, Reelgood found that, while The Mandalorian was the most watched show on both Netflix and Disney+ from the day Disney+ launched until 17 February, The only other TV series on Disney+ which popped up in the top 50 was The Simpsons, placing at number 24.

There’s no doubting that the platform will have an enormous draw for parents, with Frozen 2 next to arrive on Disney+, but for everyone else, maybe not so much. Instead of merging Hulu and Disney+ into one platform and partitioning off a portion of it for kids, the company has opted to keep its family-friendly brand intact.

Disney had been banking majorly on its subscribers sticking around to watch its catalogue of classic animated films and The Avengers on repeat until it released its original content. But now due to a combination of Disney’s own prudishness and a spot of bad timing, that content may arrive later or never. So for now, Netflix will continue to dominate the streaming wars.

Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL

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