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Next-Gen Storytelling Should Stay, Hulu-Disney+ Merger Should Go Under Iger’s Second Tenure

David Satin

The Walt Disney Company shattered the calm of the holiday week on Sunday night when it announced that CEO Bob Chapek was out, and former CEO Bob Iger was back in at the top of the company. Chapek’s smaller missteps were numerous, but the $1.5 billion loss that the company’s streaming segment endured in its fiscal fourth quarter was the final straw.

Now, Iger has some big decisions to make, and quickly. The company’s announced launch of an ad-supported tier, accompanied by a price increase for its ad-free tier is just over two weeks away. Iger likely won’t pivot away from that launch, as it will help increase average revenue per unit (ARPU) in the short term, but more streaming questions immediately loom when that is done.

One that will likely not get nearly the attention of others in the immediate future is whether or not the returning CEO will keep Chapek’s plan to integrate “Next-Gen Storytelling” on Disney+. Another less pressing question — in the short-term, at least — is whether Iger will keep Hulu as a separate streaming entity, or fold it into Disney+ once the company takes complete control in 2024.

Next-Gen Storytelling is an ambitious proposal, in which Disney is planning to use augmented and virtual reality elements to bring additional elements to experiences beyond what can normally be accomplished via streaming. One cornerstone of this project will be to offer users a way to explore Disney’s theme parks from their own home. Next-Gen Storytelling would not only put users on virtual rides like Space Mountain or Star Tours, it would allow them to get up out of their virtual seat and walk around the ride itself, or explore other park spaces that even in-person guests don’t get to enjoy.

If Iger wants to make Disney+ an ultimate celebration of all things Disney, keeping the Next-Gen Storytelling plans in place makes the most sense, if it can be done relatively cheaply. Disney is so well-known for providing a unique brand of consumer experience, that bringing some of the famous Disney “magic” to even more fans should only help keep those customers loyal for their entire lives. Because it already owns the most successful theme park business in the world, Disney is in an unparalleled position to offer experiences like Next-Gen Storytelling, and it should exploit its advantage.

In the same vein of making moves that enhance the Disney brand, it would fit Iger’s initial vision of Disney+ if under his leadership, the company decided not to move forward with a possible merger of the service with Hulu. Disney is contractually capable of buying the 33% of Hulu it does not currently own from Comcast beginning in 2024, and during Chapek’s tenure he made multiple comments about the possibility of combining the two services when that purchase is eventually completed.

On the surface, this move would seem to make a lot of sense. It would cut down on cross-service friction, making all Disney-owned video-on-demand content easily available in one destination. A report from earlier this year showed that the Disney Bundle, which allows users to subscribe to Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for a lower price, drives only moderate cross-service traffic. Integrating Hulu’s content into Disney+ would certainly encourage users to watch content from both services more often, making the combined service a more central part of their daily routine.

But if Iger wants to realign Disney+ closer with the family-friendly Disney brand that he championed, it would make sense to keep the services separate. Hulu already has an established brand for general entertainment, and there are more ways to generate cross-service traffic than simply merging services. Disney could easily add a Hulu tile to Disney+ that would take customers to a separate page, plus it could send shows to Hulu temporarily to boost their profile, as it is currently doing with the Star Wars political thriller “Andor.”

Iger would also do well to consider pulling R-rated material off Disney+. Movies like “Deadpool” and “Logan” would fit just fine on Hulu, which already has a reputation for carrying high-quality content that is more adult-oriented. The moving of adult content to Hulu would accentuate what both brands do best: Disney+ distributes family-friendly content, while Hulu is an excellent entertainment destination for adults.

It will be a fascinating few months watching what Disney’s next steps are. The move from Chapek to Iger happened very quickly and without warning, suggesting that the company thinks that big changes are needed soon. What those changes will look like remains to be seen, but Iger is clearly no neophyte. If he wants to do his utmost to enhance the Disney brand again, he’ll forge ahead on the company’s Next-Gen storytelling plans, but he’ll stay away from a Hulu-Disney+ merger.

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