Why Disney+ Will Win the Streaming Wars

Nostalgia for old junk like ‘Zenon’ is a powerful thing

OnOn Monday, Disney published a gargantuan Twitter thread listing nearly everything that’s coming to its new Disney+ service next month — from Bambi to Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century and, uh, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. In doing so, the nostalgia manufacturer tipped its hand to show its most powerful card in the streaming wars: A library of movies and shows that you completely forgot about and, even if you won’t admit it, would probably watch again in between Star Wars or Marvel releases.

Companies like Netflix, NBC, and HBO are competing to create new content that users love, but they face an issue with their backlogs. In between huge tent poles like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones, these companies need something to keep people watching. One of the most lucrative (and expensive) ways to do that is to carry things people have already seen and want to rewatch over and over. It’s why HBO is willing to pay billions for Friends and The Big Bang Theory, while NBC moves to lock down The Office and Parks and Rec. The blockbusters might get people in the door, but the comfort food makes them stay.

As Scorsese might say, it’s not cinema. Yet, I must’ve watched “Camp Nowhere” dozens of times as a kid.

It’s in that emotional comfort zone that Disney has an advantage. While there may be something relaxing about re-watching Futurama as you drift off to sleep, Disney’s shows and movies go a step further by bringing you back to childhood. Even the entries in their library that might otherwise be considered crap can be hits simply because you watched them when you were a kid.

In my case, one such film is Camp Nowhere. This mid-90s movie, starring Christopher Lloyd right around the time his Back to the Future career mojo was wearing off, features a group of kids who con their parents into sending them to a fake camp for the summer. As Scorsese might say, it’s not cinema. Yet, I must’ve watched it dozens of times as a kid. While most of it has slipped from my memory, every gag in every pixelated trailer sends a hit of dopamine through my brain as it all comes rushing back.

The beauty—or insidious marketing strategy, if you prefer — of Disney’s megathread is that there’s a similar nostalgic freight truck waiting to slam into just about anyone. For some, it might be the lukewarm, yet quirky Inspector Gadget film starring Matthew Broderick, or the Lindsay Lohan remake of The Parent Trap, or the Robin Williams fever dream Flubber. Chances are you can find something from your childhood in there that’s probably not that great, but that you enjoy just because you watched it as a kid.

To keep watch times long, Disney also has a gauntlet of nostalgic shows to throw at viewers. From sitcoms like Boy Meets World, Even Stevens, or Hannah Montana, to cartoons from X-Men: The Animated Series to The Simpsons, one of the longest-running, put-it-on-in-the-background shows on TV.

The marketing may be focused on a new Star Wars show or a cinematic multiverse of Marvel tie-in series, but the company showed yesterday that it believes there’s value in familiar, comfortable content, even if it’s not necessarily the best. Judging by some of the early reactions to the list — and the sky-high prices content companies already pay for glorified reruns — Disney might be onto something here with this whole nostalgia thing.

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.

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