Why Disney+ Quietly Launched in the Netherlands First

The small, diverse, tech-savvy country offers an ideal environment to beta-test the high-profile streaming platform.

There was no marketing, no billboards and no social media campaign. But on Sept. 12, the 17 million residents of the Netherlands became the first people in the world to see Disney's high-profile streaming offering Disney+, for free, before it launches stateside Nov. 12.

Why the Netherlands? For global conglomerates seeking to test drive a new streaming service, this tiny nation, squashed between Germany, Belgium and the North Sea, is close to ideal.

"We are small and densely populated and we have just around 7.5 million households in the whole country, so no matter how popular Disney+ is, Disney's servers won't get overloaded," says Sanne de Bruyckere, a market researcher with Dutch group Telecompaper. "And the technical infrastructure is great."

Broadband internet penetration in the Netherlands is 98 percent, compared to 82 percent in the U.S., meaning virtually everyone in the country can access and use the Disney+ trial.

The service, led by Disney exec Kevin Mayer, isn't the full package that will be rolled out in the U.S., Canada and Australia in November for $6.99 a month. The Dutch trial doesn't have any of the new series that Disney has greenlit for the service, such as Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian and Marvel universe titles Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki

It also doesn't include Hulu and ESPN+, both of which will be offered as Disney+ add-ons (for $12.99) in the U.S. "It is essentially a huge beta trial; rather than doing a test run with a few thousand homes in the U.S., Disney is testing its service on a whole country," says David Sidebottom of London-based analysts Futuresource.

Sidebottom adds that both Netflix and Spotify sport 3 million subscribers in the Netherlands, a huge figure for such a small population (Netflix's European headquarters also is based in the country). Videoland, the local Netflix competitor, has about 1 million subscribers. "They are used to paying for online content," he says.

Dutch users who sign up for the Disney+ trial will immediately be rolled over as full members when the service launches at a cost of €6.99 ($7.72) per month. As with other international users, Dutch customers will not have the option to take Hulu and ESPN+ together with Disney+ as those platforms do not operate in the territory. 

Elsewhere, Disney's streaming roll out will largely be determined by where, and when, it has access to its own back catalog. "Which territories get Disney+ first will come down to legacy rights," says Sidebottom, "in many places Disney content is still locked up in licensing deals with Netflix or other broadcasters. The international staggering of the SVOD roll out will largely be dictated by rights availability."

And, unlike in bigger European territories — think France, Germany, Italy and Spain — the Dutch are accustomed to viewing content in English. "The country has a very high proportion of English speakers, and most of them watch content in the original [language] with subtitles," says Fred Black of Ampere Analysis. "If you want to test to see how English-language content can translate to an international audience, the Netherlands is a good test case."

De Bruyckere points out there is a precedent for using the Netherlands as a launchpad. Several years ago, HBO tried out an over-the-top video service in Holland ahead of a planned international rollout, though that never advanced beyond the beta phase. Discovery also considered a trial of its live sports SVOD service, Dplay, in the Netherlands before picking Norway — another small, tech-savvy and English-proficient nation — instead.

De Bruyckere, who has used the Disney+ trial and is "happy with it," notes: "The recommendations engine is not as effective — yet — as Netflix's. It doesn't push to watch another episode or another film. Disney may have to do some more work to keep users on the platform longer."

This story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.