In a startlingly predictable move, Disney is entering the streaming business. They’ve announced two initiatives: first, a standalone version of ESPN that can be purchased separately and viewed on mobile devices or streaming boxes; and second, a partnership with DIRECTV for that company’s upcoming “DIRECTV Now” service.
While we haven’t heard much about DIRECTV’s streaming plans for several months, insiders expect the service to launch in the first quarter of 2017, after the lucrative football season is over and during a traditionally weak quarter for the satellite broadcaster.
Although few details have been given, it’s expected that the standalone ESPN service would not differ too much from the current “WatchESPN” app that is available with pay-TV subscriptions. This is turning into a fairly common occurrence… a company hones its streaming infrastructure by allowing streaming for pay-TV subscribers, then opens up their catalog for a fee. HBO, Starz, and Showtime have all gone this route successfully. It’s likely we’ll see Disney, with their large stable of “Watch” apps, do the same.
In fact, these same insiders expect “DIRECTV Now” to be an outgrowth of the over 100 channels that DIRECTV currently streams live through its apps as well, with the back end beefed up to handle millions more requests (hopefully.) Using this sort of existing infrastructure helps a company get on the streaming bandwagon, and fast.
There are bound to be a few doubters who will point out that DIRECTV was extremely late to the party with its ability to use the WatchESPN app. They’ll point out that fact as evidence that DIRECTV won’t bring ESPN to its streaming service, at least not at first. Those doubters aren’t taking into account the way that WatchESPN deal went down. Honestly, it was pure chance that DIRECTV was last to the WatchESPN party; carriage contracts run for several years and DIRECTV had just shaken hands with Disney on a new one when the WatchESPN app started to gain steam. As soon as the contract came up for renewal, DIRECTV subscribers got WatchESPN (and the many other “Watch” apps from Disney) as a matter of course. I don’t think that prior event has any bearing at all on this new deal.
What we’re really seeing here is the future of pay TV. While in the last five years we’ve seen the rapid rise of streaming and apps from pay TV providers, I project that the next five years will be filled with streaming services provided by the very same people who provide you pay TV now. It’s an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy, and it started with DISH’s SlingTV product, which is starting to gain ground as a legitimate streaming alternative. Obviously DIRECTV will come next with three full time streaming services (at least one will be free) and we’ll see even more in the coming years. Not to worry – it’s not about whether you get TV from over a wire, from the sky or through the internet, it’s more about the choice of entertainment you have and being able to get it on your terms. Some pay TV providers (*cough*Time Warner Cable*cough*) never really understood that, but the leaders in the business do, and they’re working hard to make a brighter pay-TV future for everyone no matter who you are or where you watch.