What do you want out of a new streaming service? What matters most to you if you’re being wooed to drop a few more dollars a month on some new digital toy? For some of you, the answer might be a smooth, easy-to-navigate layout. Others might want a rich library of titles. (Some of you might feel like that well-used “Why not both?” meme is the answer.)
The two new streaming service unveiled this month, Apple TV+ and Disney+, run the gamut between those two extremes. One of the two services is all about the layout and your ability to swiftly shift from app to app, let alone title to title. The other is all about keeping you locked into the virtual property of the company that oversees it. Apple TV+ and Disney+ are not offering you the same thing. And only one of them is offering you the right thing.
Your Local Library
At its core, the key question of the streaming wars (or the streaming arms race or the streaming beauty pageant, or whatever you want to call it) comes down to the library of titles a service can offer. Ideally, being able to access everything in a user interface that makes sense would help too. But think of it this way. You may already subscribe to Netflix, but will you want to when they no longer offer The Office or Friends? These are two of the most popular shows on Netflix today, and they won’t likely lose a lot of their fame upon shifting to Peacock and HBO Max, respectively, in the spring of 2020. (Regarding Friends, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence that an unscripted reunion special is in the works, via HBO Max.)
But those titles will leave, thus shifting the burden to Netflix to find titles that will be suitably popular replacements. While the service has plenty of new shows, including the very buzzy Stranger Things, they only had so much of a shelf life. Shows like Friends are enduring and timeless in ways that can’t be put into words. (Netflix recently made a deal to be the exclusive streaming home of Seinfeld starting in 2021; your mileage may vary, but I’m not sure that’s going to be an adequate enough replacement for two other very popular comedies with different comedic sensibilities.)
At least Netflix has a library of titles, both produced inside their vast studio and licensed from other distributors. Apple TV+ has…well, if you want to be charitable, they do have a library of titles. A library of Apple TV+ shows like The Morning Show, See, Dickinson, and For All Mankind. Their library consists of their own material, and if you don’t want to watch those, you’ll have to watch something else. Part of the draw of the overall TV app from Apple isn’t just that they offer glossy, high-concept shows of their own with big-name actors, but that you can easily access countless other shows or films through their native apps. The hope is that you’ll not only use that app for whatever TV needs you have, but bundle it with things like Apple Music and Apple Arcade.
The flip side is that Apple TV+ represents a market the tech company isn’t automatically known for. By now, Apple has become fairly synonymous with digital access to music and video games, so doubling down on the Music and Arcade apps feels like a natural extension of their brand. But the TV shows they’ve unveiled so far are a new frontier. On the surface, these shows all seem to hit the necessary boxes for viewer interest. Both the shows that have premiered and those coming down the pike hit a sweet spot with genres and/or creators and/or actors. And because it’s Apple, the layout of Apple TV+ looks as sleek as you might expect.
A Fresh Coat of Paint
The package, in essence, looks the part. It’s once you open up the package that everything is revealed to be a bit hollow. I’ve already written broadly about the four big shows that served as the introductory note to Apple TV+ — none of them are so bad that they can’t be saved or enjoyed, at least on a perverse level. But that is, frankly, a very low bar to clear. One of the strange truths of the streaming wars, or the streaming arms race, is that new, original content is not going to define these services. Or, rather, it shouldn’t be the sole defining factor of these services. Apple TV+, in short, cannot hope to define itself simply by its new shows, because it will lose. Its layout looks nice, and it’s easy to navigate. But what there is to navigate is a letdown.
Layout and access to those new shows, at least, was not a problem hounding Apple TV+ on its go-live day. This was a problem that hounded Disney+ upon its go-live date of November 12. I would argue, though, that this is the right kind of problem to have. I’ve no doubt that Bob Iger wasn’t super-thrilled to see report after report after report of technical issues plaguing users on the first day of a new era for the company. (The following day, it was reported that Disney+ got 10 million subscribers on its first day, which is also the good sort of news.) But that, ideally, is better news than, say, an announcement that your head of scripted programming is leaving. (Sorry, Apple TV+.)
Disney+, too, has a lot more to offer than just a handful of new shows. So far, at least, Disney+ has the leg up on new programming. Theme-park fanatics or enthusiasts will thrill to the multi-part documentary series The Imagineering Story, and Pixar fans can find new short films in SparkShorts and Forky Asks A Question. And, yes, of course, there’s that fancy new Star Wars show The Mandalorian. After watching the pilot, I’m happy to report that The Mandalorian is the best pilot episode of any of the new streaming shows I’ve seen. I am less happy to report that it achieves this honor largely by being competently made, coherently written, and well-shot. As above, these shouldn’t be high bars to clear. But I want to keep watching The Mandalorian, as opposed to doing so out of obligation only.
Speaking only for myself, I didn’t experience any serious technical issues in accessing Disney+ on either my Apple TV or my iPhone. The flip side is that I accessed Disney+ pretty early on its opening morning. Later in the day, technical issues appeared to be swamping the lay of the land. But from my perspective, the only headache — and it was minor on both the Apple TV and the iPhone — was finding the Disney+ app to download. For the many millions who subscribed for the first time yesterday, that much wasn’t a big hurdle to surmount.
Inside the Disney+ app itself, it’s been interesting to navigate and find even more titles than were promised when the service’s Twitter account went thread-crazy back in mid-October. It’s not just that, over the last few weeks, Disney+ announced the arrival of James Cameron’s Avatar or even more entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The day before the service went live, /Film published a wish list of mine, with titles I hoped would show up on Disney+ one day, or possibly even the launch date.
As luck would have it, a few of the titles I asked for were there on Day One. For example, a couple episodes of the Walt Disney anthology TV series, “The Plausible Impossible” and “Disneyland Around the Seasons”, are both available to watch. The latter episode will be worth watching for any amateur historians — it aired just three days after the death of Walt Disney, although he had filmed scenes for the episode beforehand. And there are some shorts from the Silly Symphonies catalog, too. That’s an unqualified good thing, because the more of Disney’s past is available, the better.
A Wish Your Heart Makes
Where things get tricky and a bit more frustrating is that you wouldn’t have realized Disney+ offered these titles unless you knew to search for them. (Regarding the TV episodes, I can thank my podcast co-host/film critic Scott Renshaw, who tweeted about the “Disneyland Around the Seasons” episode, thus alerting me to its streaming presence.) If the choices are that Disney+ posts these but essentially sneaks them in between the rest of the Disney Through the Decades collection, or Disney+ posts nothing at all, I’ll take the former option. But some kind of historical context and presentation would be ideal.
The same is true of one of the most common phrases you will see on Disney+ if you go to the Details tab of many, many older titles: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” That phrase shows up whether you’re watching some of Disney’s animated classics (though not all, including, inexplicably enough, the 1992 animated film Aladdin), or the Mickey Mouse Club TV show from 1955. What it means, in as broad a way as possible, is that the show or film you’re about to watch trafficked in troubling, problematic and/or offensive stereotypes of racial, ethnic, or sexual concerns.
A flashpoint for this, at least in terms of headlines online, was the 1941 film Dumbo, which some outlets alleged would be censored to remove the crow characters, who typified negative stereotypes of African Americans. Though the crows are offensive, they’re still part of Dumbo, which remains uncensored on Disney+. (Either this means that Disney chose not to censor the crows, or they were never going to do so and the reports were baseless. I vote for the latter, personally.) All that Disney has is that aforementioned two-sentence phrase. On one hand, it’s more than the studio had done in the past when releasing films like Dumbo, Peter Pan, or The Aristocats on home media. On the other, it’s the kind of message most people likely won’t notice, in favor of just clicking Play and watching one of those films.
And Now, Your Host
Context, too, would be appreciated in the form of more special features. One of the tabs on some titles, “Extras”, does include commentary tracks…for some films. (A counterexample, if I can cherry-pick, is The Rocketeer, which has but one extra: …a clip of the film. Why not just watch the film?) Granted, some of the films in question had few if any special features on previous DVD or Blu-ray releases. Now, though, is an incredible time for Disney+ to create new extra features for these films.
In a perfect world, Disney+ could function as a digital Turner Classic Movies for the family set. Yes, darker or more challenging fare will be posted on Hulu instead of Disney+, but you can still learn about the history of some of these films in different ways. Posting introductions featuring someone like Disney critic/historian Leonard Maltin would be a perfect way to ease casual viewers into films that may surprise them upon watching them in 2019.
In a perfect world, too, the battle between Disney+ and Apple TV+ would not be one-sided. Early technical issues aside, and the fact that its layout recalls Netflix often and clearly intentionally, Disney+ is the obvious winner here. The new content they offer isn’t incredible, but comes closer to appointment viewing than anything Apple TV+ has to offer. And seeing as middling shows is all Apple TV+ has to offer, there’s not a true contest here. Disney+ had flaws to be ironed out on its opening day. But it also has a library of hundreds and hundreds of older titles, it has everything from big blockbusters to Disney Channel TV shows, and it looks comfortable and familiar. Disney+ is unsurprisingly a winner.
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