EDITORIAL: Disney+ Isn’t Adding New Features, They’re Just Turning Them On Slowly For Attention

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OK folks, bust out the popcorn and tin foil hats! We’re taking a deep dive into Disney+… but not the shows. No, this time, we’re going to take a look at marketing. No, wait, don’t go! There’s intrigue, betrayal, mind control, and even a post-credits scene!

Act 1 – Launch Day Troubles

Back on November 12th, when Disney+ first launched, many people had issues connecting to the service. This led to multiple media outlets reporting on Disney+, with Disney spinning this to show that their new service was a success:

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Think about this for a second. Disney knew, with fairly good accuracy, how many people were going to be trying to connect to Disney+ on launch day. Between the massive discounts for D23 members, a free year for Verizon customers, and other discounts and deals, almost everyone who wanted Disney+ at launch had already signed up. The one exception to this was for folks who wanted to bundle Disney+ with their Hulu subscription… but I suspect that this isn’t enough to justify the widespread, show-stopping delays that users experienced at launch.

Sure, Disney has since claimed that the launch issues were due to “coding errors”, but as a software developer myself, I don’t understand how software errors like that could be solved so quickly. Things were working relatively well later that same day, with only occasional issues after the first 24 hours for most users. There may have been some bugs at launch––I’d be shocked if there weren’t–– but I don’t think that accounts for the widespread issues everyone experienced.

This seems far more easily explained as Disney under-provisioning servers for launch. This is actually a very common problem when starting up a new service. For brand new services, it’s usually very hard to guess how many users you’ll get on day 1, and given how your service hasn’t made any money yet, it can be hard to justify the cost of a bunch of servers to back up your launch. However, these excuses don’t really apply in the case of Disney+: they had a very accurate count of how many users they were going to have, and also already had all of their money. Not to even mention the fact that this is Disney, and they could have easily afforded more servers if they wanted to be absolutely sure that there was enough capacity at launch.

In short, Disney could have prevented the launch day issues, simple as that.

They just didn’t want to.

They got tons of media coverage that day. I talked to people at my day job about this, and more than a couple of them said that the only reason they knew Disney+ launched today was from the news stories they saw about how bad the launch was, and in the same breath, said they might check it out once the launch issues settled down.

Disney knew what they were doing on launch day. And it seems to have worked.

Act 2 – “New” Features

Over the past few weeks, Disney+ has been adding some new features that users have been requesting, from resume and restart buttons, to a “Continue Watching” section on the home screen, to the often requested autoplay feature, it certainly looks like Disney is doing a great job of listening to their customers and giving them what they want.

But what if I said Disney+ could have had all those features at launch, but chose not to?

First off, autoplay was tested and working in the Netherlands beta for Disney+, with us reporting on that as early as October 23rd. This worked fine in the beta. As far as we know, there weren’t any issues with this feature, so there was no technical reason to not have it launch with the service.

The same was true of the “Continue Watching” section, which was in the beta as of at least September 13th, as documented by this Reddit user asking if there’s a way to remove a video from that list. (Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be.) But what really makes this thread interesting is this series of comments posted 2 months later:

A screenshot from the previously linked Reddit thread

How strange… they removed it just before launch when it had been working for over 2 months in beta.

Another recently added feature is the “Background Video” setting, which allows you to turn on or off Disney+ automatically playing video in the background when previewing a series. This is a feature that Netflix users have wanted for quite some time, and Disney+ adding this feature caused a bevy of news articles praising the service for adding such an oft-requested feature so quickly.

The only problem with that is that the setting has been there since the service launched, and Disney just now gave you access to it.

Back when Disney+ first launched, I did some light digging into the service’s APIs – essentially, how the app/web browser and the Disney+ servers talk to each other. When you first log in to Disney+, one of the first requests it makes is to get your user profile information, which makes sense. It needs to know stuff like your name, profile picture, and your settings. But here’s a look at some of those settings, which are the same today as they were at launch:

For the technically-inclined here, all I did to get this was open up Chrome’s inspector, watch the Network tab, then log in to Disney+. Look for a call to /accounts/me if you’re playing along.

Note the “autoplay” and “backgroundVideo” settings. These settings have been here since day 1.

So if the settings have been there, and these features worked in the beta, why wouldn’t Disney give us the best service they could since day 1?

Act 3 – Freedumb of The Press

I believe Disney is doing this for exactly the same reason that I believe they intentionally had issues on launch day: free press. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” goes the saying… but that’s hardly what’s happening here.

Disney, a storytelling juggernaut, is writing a story, and the main character is Disney+.

Disney knew that there would be issues on launch day – every new service has issues at launch. So, it made sure the biggest issue, the one that everyone was going to be talking about, was one that they could control, fix easily, and spin to their advantage.

Disney knew that no matter how many features they launched with, people would always want more… so they launched with as few features as possible, and have been slowly turning “new” features on over time. Most likely, they’ve also been listening for any feature requests they haven’t implemented yet, and are working on getting those done as soon as possible, so that when their backlog of existing-but-turned-off features runs dry, they’ll have more to give.

This can continue for weeks, maybe even months. All thew while, Disney+ gets a reputation for listening to its customers better than any other streaming service. News stories abound, social media sings its praises, and any minor issues are glossed over by the fact that new features and tweaks are coming out at such a fast pace.

This is all about publicity, and it seems to be working.

Mandatory Post-Credits Scene That Foreshadows The Next Mov(i)e

Remember that “playbackSettings” object we found earlier? There were two more settings in there that Disney+ hasn’t let us mess with yet: “previewAudioOnHome” and “previewVideoOnHome”.

My prediction is that in the not too distant future, Disney+ is going to start auto-playing a video on the home screen for the app when you first start it up (similar to what Netflix already does). Note that this is different from the “Background Video” setting, as this happens on the “Home” screen, not the sub-menu for a specific show or movie.

Articles and social media posts will be written highlighting this, lamenting the inability to turn it off.

And then several days later, like clockwork, Disney+ will give us access to this setting, allowing us to turn off just the audio of this preview, or both the audio and video (while technically they could give us the option for “audio-only”, I think that’s a bit silly, and I doubt they’ll actually let us make that choice).

Even more articles will be written praising Disney for listening. Twitter will go wild.

And Disney will have gotten exactly the positive press they wanted, again, without having to spend a cent.

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Ben

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Benoit
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Benoit

I agree completely!

But remember also that lowest number of features you have at launch, the less problems you will have to resolve in the beginnings.

A launch like this one must be a huge undertaking. Better reduce the risks if you can. Add features later, one at a time, to reduce chances of impact.

But I also believe that they used this to their advantage to increase marketing and visibility.

David Schroeder
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David Schroeder

Excellent detective work, Ben. My gut says that you’re 99% correct. I’m not sure that Disney has been *utterly* in control of *every* moment of this as you suggest, but I think you’re largely on target. Man, they are good!

And I am LOVING the older treasures on Disney+, like the original hour-long episodes from the opening week of The Mickey Mouse Club in glorious black-and-white. I didn’t realize that the original MMC march opening was so long. And those newsreels and other original features are just charming as heck!

tim
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tim

This is pretty typical in agile development. You want to get a working product out and you don’t launch with every bell and whistle turned on right off the bat. No conspiracy here.

John B
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John B

Exactly this, work in Agile dev and this is how we work. Issues were code as they were rejecting devices. Urgent code deploy stabilised the access issue.

If you want to see conspiracy then so be it.

Mandy
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Mandy

Great article. Comprehensive and easily understood. Hope you write more!

Randy
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Randy

I’m hoping they bring over the “whats on now” tools from Disney Now to Disney+. or at least allow us to activate Disney Now with a Disney+ account, so we can use the DInsey Now app , since some of the shows aren’t on Disney+ yet. Can’t quite cut the cord yet since my kids love ToTS, Aviator and Bluey….

April
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April

I thought it was rather suspicious that they left out all these no-brainer features and suddenly said, “Here you go! We listened!” Right. But I don’t really care that much. It’s just a marketing ploy even if it’s kind of annoying to the customer which doesn’t seem right. We waited until the day of launch to sign up to be sure the app would show on our TV. It was only like a week before that they announced it’d be on Samsung smart TVs. I would’ve been pissed if I’d bought a Roku ahead of time and then didn’t need… Read more »

Greg Bayers
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Greg Bayers

Disney+ has the worst customer service I made account with mistake in email address and have been trying since launch to get assistance to cancel account now paying for 2 accounts and nobody will respond. Have reached out via email, Twitter and instagram multiple times

Cyrus Lee
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Cyrus Lee

Pre-registration for Disney+ was only available in America. As such, they had no numbers for demand from the rest of the world (which includes Canada, where I was forced to sign up day 1 even though I’d planned to get it since it was announced).

Nick
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Nick

I thought the same exact thing. It was all definitely planned. When are they going to release a list of all of the connected devices and a way to deactivate them? That’s what I want to know. And enable HDR on PS4 Pro.