Disney adds R-rated movies, biker gangs in Europe streaming push


The launch of the Disney+ streaming service in Europe last March didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. The company had to cancel a live event in London featuring some of its stars as the coronavirus marched across the globe.

But with people on lockdown from Aberdeen to Zurich, consumers soon found themselves watching even more movies and TV shows. Now, nearly a year after the product’s European debut, Walt Disney Co. is introducing a new brand, Star, which will feature more viewing options for adults — and a higher price for everyone using the Disney+ service.

Subscribers will be able to watch more shows from the world’s largest entertainment company, including the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” FX’s biker series “Sons of Anarchy,” and Hulu’s “Love, Victor,” about a teen coming to terms with his sexual orientation. There will also be R-rated movies, such as the Queen Anne biopic “The Favourite” and Marvel’s “Deadpool 2,” which moms and dads can wall off from kids by activating parental controls.

With the new programming, the price for Disney+ is increasing, to 8.99 euros ($10.87) a month from 6.99 euros. The new Star brand is also being introduced in Canada, Australia and Singapore as a sixth “tile” on the Disney+ home screen, alongside Marvel, Pixar and other labels.

Disney+ has been a runaway success, garnering nearly 95 million subscribers globally. The challenge now, as the Star launch underscores, is to grow beyond the current customer base of families with young children and adults who love Star Wars and Marvel.

In Europe, the problem is magnified because consumers in some countries don’t have a history of paying for TV. Local streaming rivals are also starting to emerge, including Sky’s Now TV in the U.K., Vivendi SA’s Canal+ Series in France and Nordic Entertainment Group AB’s Viaplay.

Seeking Value

“A lot of consumers are looking for relatively low-cost entertainment,” said Richard Broughton, research director at London’s Ampere Analysis. “Their incomes have been impacted by the pandemic. Now is the time to grab as many consumers as possible.”

Netflix Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. are the leaders in European streaming, and they’ve been active there much longer. Disney+, at 14 million subscribers, trails Netflix’s 63.5 million, Amazon’s 43.2 million and Apple TV’s 14.8 million, according to Ampere. Disney doesn’t break out its numbers in the region.

The Star launch illustrates Disney’s differing approach to different markets. In India, a Disney+ Hotstar product featuring programs for grown-ups and live sports is already available. In June, Disney will introduce Star as a stand-alone service in Latin America, with live sports. It will be bundled with Disney+ at a discounted price of $9 a month.

In the U.S., merging the family-friendly and adult shows is a little more challenging because the company already operates Hulu, a streaming service with more than 39 million customers. Disney sells its three U.S. services — Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ — for a combined $13 a month (rising to $14 in March). That offering led to a jump in subscribers for the latter two services after Disney+ launched. ESPN+ is also being integrated into the Hulu app, so subscribers to both services will be able to easily move between the two.

Original Series

Disney announced 10 original series in the works for Star in Europe, a move that appeases countries with local content requirements, as well as consumers eager to see programs that relate to them. The company plans to add over 1,000 titles to Star during its first year in Europe.

Ultimately a library of programs such as espionage series “24” and domestic drama “Desperate Housewives” may prove a lure for 20- and 30-something consumers who haven’t signed up for Disney+ already, according to Simon Murray, principal analyst at Digital TV Research in London. That’s particularly true in markets such as Scandinavia, where streaming options are proliferating.

“There’s quite a war going on there,” he said. “But nobody’s losing subscribers.”