Why isn’t Disney+ in the UK yet?

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Disney+ arrives in the US this winter, but a UK release is still weeks away – we take a look at what’s going on.

On November 12th, Disney launched 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 was hardly a universal rollout. Rather that Disney+ initially launched in just a few territories (albeit as it’s since announced with a huge catalogue of films).

There’s the US and Canada, obviously, that got the service on November 12th. That’s the same day it launched in the Netherlands, which for a long time was the only European territory with a firm release date. Australia and New Zealand followed next, on November 19th. The, we now learn, must wait until March 24th 2020 for the service, over four months after it launches in America. The original release date was March 31st, so at least it’s moved forward a week.

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 Sky for 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 had an initial release date for Disney+, and only now in each of those territories do we learn the 31st March 2020 date, with a warning that not all material will be available in every territory. 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 some point in 2020. 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  had 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 fairly quickly. The contractual likelihood is that even if Disney+ had launched in the UK at the same time, Disney wouldn’t – due to pre-existing deals – be able to stream Endgame before anyone else here. [although it’s worth checking out the comment from PS below this article for further insight on this].

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”.

The 19 week delay isn’t ideal for Disney for its UK rollout.  It’s clear that – in spite of its negotiating muscle – there are tough conversations ahead, that have been had, or are 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.

It also remains unclear what the vague comment about not all material being available in all territories actually boils down to. A covering position, or are there TV shows and movies it can’t run?

The clear position at the moment is that as the Disney+ service launched in the US, it did 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 case of The Mandalorian, the show has long since been spoiled online by many, given that it’s completed its first season run. In the absence of an official way, it’s not going out on a massive limb to suggest some found a less official, illegal method to watch it. And with that in mind, it’s clearly in Disney’s interests to plug this gap, and plug it quickly.

It’s a huge gamble this project for Disney, and clearly, there’s been some problem. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t launch a high profile Star Wars TV project and had it unavailable to most of the world for four months. But that’s where we were. On the upside, at least the announced pricing is competitive: the £5.99 a month, £59.99 a year UK subscription price significantly undercuts Netflix and Amazon. And given the strong sign-up numbers in the US already, Disney+ is more than likely to make a similar impact over here.

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