It didn’t take long after Disney+ added its first R-rated movies to its platform with “Deadpool” and “Logan” last week that some concerned parents claimed Disney had broken its promise to keep such content off the family-friendly service.
“After decades of corporate brilliance establishing itself as the world’s most trusted brand for families, today’s C-level suite at Disney has decided to flush it all down the toilet,” declared Tim Winter, president of Parents Television and Media Council. The conservative-media watchdog group was quick to react after Disney, the world’s biggest entertainment company, announced on Friday that it was rolling out more adult fare on it’s squeaky-clean brand streamer. And they weren’t the only group that wanted to make parents aware of the coming changes.
“Disney’s shift away from their launch messaging that Disney+ content would never be above a PG-13-equivalent maturity level means that families need to be proactive about setting up profiles for their kids, PIN-protecting their own profiles, and managing parental controls for the platform to ensure a kid-friendly viewing experience,” Betsy Bozdech, editorial director and head of Ratings and Reviews of the non-profit Common Sense Media told TheWrap. “While movies like ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Logan’ are entertaining for adult superhero fans, these films have explicit violence, language, and sex that make them inappropriate for young kids based on child development guidelines.”
But the studio knows that in the long run it’s going to need more than “Frozen” and Pixar on its platform to win the streaming wars, even if it frustrates some parents today. And analysts who spoke to TheWrap believe that though there’s a risk of some short-term churn among subscribers with kids, adding R-rated movies is long overdue.
“Ultimately to compete in this business, they need to bring their entire portfolio to bear…they can’t bring that to bear with just G and PG content,” Paul Erickson, senior analyst with Parks Associates, told TheWrap. “If they’re optimizing their business, it would be folly for them to ignore all that available market for their content.”
He said the key is for Disney to be sensitive “that their customer base is comprised of a lot of different enclaves of people…this is perhaps some short term friction here as they transition and truly move to leveraging their content library to the max.”
Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore, agreed that Disney+ can’t restrict itself to just family entertainment if it wants to compete.
“If you’re known as a platform that only offers family entertainment, you’re going to be put in a niche and silo, and that in theory will limit your potential in grabbing people and keeping them.”
That didn’t stop the PTC though from speaking out, which has expressed disappointment that more of the mature superhero movies and content did not remain on Hulu.
“After decades of corporate brilliance establishing itself as the world’s most trusted brand for families, today’s C-level suite at Disney has decided to flush it all down the toilet,” Winter wrote. “While Disney+ points subscribers to its parental controls, the mere presence of R-rated and TV-MA rated content violates the trust and sensibilities of families. What took decades to build is now taking mere months to erase. One day in the no-too-distant future, business schools will point back to this abrupt corporate U-turn as they analyze what happened to the once-great Walt Disney Company. And in the meantime, families will continue to be woefully underserved by Hollywood.”
Erickson pushed back on that notion, explaining that with Disney+ now three years old, most users recognize that the streamer is a different animal all together from the overarching Disney brand, one that encompasses Marvel, Star Wars, Nat Geo, “The Simpsons” and other content that isn’t strictly targeted at kids or is well known not to be PG.
“If you subscribe to Disney+ because you thought it was a Disney-only related service, over time you would’ve probably been upset by a bunch of other content too,” Erickson said.
Disney declined to comment. However, the streamer — upon adding TV-MA content back in March — made a public relations push to make families aware of the change. The studio also cited its desire to bring more content from the Marvel brand together in one place, adding shows like “Jessica Jones” and “Daredevil” to Disney+ just as they’ve done with the “Deadpool” films and “Logan.”
Marvel even announced at Comic-Con over the weekend a show called “Marvel Zombies” that will have a TV-MA rating, and which Brad Winderbaum, head of streaming series for Disney-owned Marvel Studios, joked would be a “family-friendly show” for those families that “love gore.”
“We have experienced great success with an expanded content offering on Disney+ across our global markets and are excited to continue that here in the U.S. as well by offering our consumers not only great content with the new Marvel additions, but also a set of features that help ensure a viewing experience most suitable for them and their family,” Michael Paull, president of Disney Streaming, said in a statement from March.
Sure enough, the arrival of “Deadpool” and “Logan” came with a reminder from the streamer to adjust parental controls, something that became mandatory for users to adjust back on March 16 when the TV-MA content was first added. And Erickson explained that it would be easy for Disney to keep their commitment to families by prioritizing the user experience, making clear how they’re evolving their portfolio and designing notices or content warnings in ways that they’re “intentional” and “unavoidable” for users.
A representative for Common Sense Media told TheWrap that parents should understand the importance of using parental controls but also have conversations with their children about the content they’re being exposed to. The rep acknowledged that though it’s only three movies today, they expect Disney+ to eventually add more such content to the service, but argued that the parental controls on Disney+ are actually quite robust in comparison to other streaming services.
Dergarabedian added that though Disney+ is providing parental controls to subscribers, some will believe they don’t need to be the gatekeepers of what their children watch because they expect Disney will already be. And that runs the minor risk of alienating some subscribers.
“Absolutely there’s going to be, but that’s okay,” he said. “Companies have to evolve and make changes. But they do have to be careful.”
Disney in its most recent quarterly earnings revealed that Disney+ had 137.7 million subscribers, and they’ve stated they want to hit 230-260 million by 2024. But, according to a 2021 analysis from Nielsen, 44% of those viewers are between the ages of 2-17, a higher proportion than competitors by a mile.
So it’s only natural that Disney+ would want to diversify its content and appeal to an older crowd. Thus far that’s even included the addition of Peter Jackson’s “The Beatles: Get Back” or the arrival of “Dancing With the Stars” after it thrived for years on ABC.
As for Hulu, which up until Friday was streaming both “Deadpool” and “Logan,” analysts felt their content offering was diverse enough that this move won’t greatly impact Hulu’s churn in the short term, even as it has become to be known for its edgier fare. But questions still remain about Hulu’s future as a standalone service in the long term.
But analysts see this moment as an opportunity for Disney+ to start getting ahead. Parents are viewers too, and so long as they can put clear controls in place, they’ll want their own reason for keeping Disney+ around that doesn’t involve watching “Encanto” on repeat.
“They can lead the way for the industry to show how best to manage and bridge a really, really large age gap,” Erickson said. “It’s an opportunity for them to really show the rest of the industry how to do that. They’re not going to be the first conglomerate with a really diverse set of libraries within their portfolio.”