TV Long View: The Numbers Behind Media Giants' All-In Streaming Plays

Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek at the company’s investor day 2020

Walt Disney CEO Bob Chapek at the company’s investor day 2020

The deluge of movies and TV series Disney announced Thursday for its Disney+ streaming platform — and to a lesser extent, for Hulu — was almost too much to process. The company name-checked more than 40 new titles for the two platforms and offered up new details and release dates for a dozen or so previously announced projects.

And, having shot past its initial estimates for the number of subscribers to Disney+ — currently at almost 87 million, more than twice the benchmark for the platform's first year — the company is now projecting between 230 million and 260 million subscribers worldwide (including for its newly unveiled Star service outside the U.S.) by 2024.

Disney is doubling down on the huge bet it has made on its streaming properties, and it follows another massive (and much more controversial) shift from WarnerMedia, which plans to shift its entire 2021 theatrical slate to its streaming platform, HBO Max. Leaving aside the short-term strategy behind that move, it's clear that the two media behemoths are all in on the streaming future.

A much less talked about announcement from earlier this week offers some insight as to why. Nielsen said on Tuesday that over the next few years, it will roll out a new ratings metric that will measure video consumption across all platforms and devices. Here's a line from that press release (emphasis added):

"Between March and August 2020, U.S. adults spent 12.2 trillion minutes with digital, 11.1 trillion minutes with linear TV and 2.8 trillion minutes streaming — and these numbers continue to exponentially grow."

In that six-month span, streaming video via TV screens (the 2.8 trillion figure) accounted for 25 percent as much time as did traditional TV viewing. The largest number of all — digital consumption of media on computers, phones and other mobile devices — almost certainly includes a fair amount of streaming time as well.

Nielsen figures from the first quarter of 2020 suggest that about 10 percent of those 12.2 trillion digital minutes would be spent on streaming video, so that's 1.22 trillion minutes. That in turn would mean total streaming time was about 4 trillion minutes between March and August, a number that Nielsen predicts will grow exponentially — even after the United States is clear of coronavirus pandemic and other entertainment options return — as it prepares to roll out its cross-platform metric (which it calls Nielsen One).

Older streaming platforms like Hulu and (especially) Netflix helped create the behavior reflected in Nielsen's numbers and projections. Legacy media companies like Disney — which acquired full control of Hulu last year in addition to launching Disney+ — and Warner are playing catchup now, and they may be for some time. But consumers' moves toward streaming that the Nielsen numbers reveal suggest, again, that even if no other media giant "dethrones" Netflix, they have a lot of room to grow.