On March 16 Disney+ will gain all six Marvel series produced for Netflix in their uncensored glory: “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones,” “Luke Cage,” “Iron Fist,” “The Punisher,” and “The Defenders,” as well as the ABC series “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” To prepare for the incoming violence and profanity, Disney+ is asking its subscribers to update their parental controls settings.
It might be shocking to see Disney+ host The Punisher, an antihero who’s been known to vanquish his enemies with a sledgehammer, but that shift may signal something even more significant. Once upon a time, Disney+ was supposed to be the family-friendly streamer and Hulu its more mature and complex cousin. With R-rated content, Disney+ changes its branding barrier — and that may also reflect a change in Hulu’s future as a standalone streaming service.
The subject arose several times during the January Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour. Reporters asked Hulu chief Craig Erwich if he believed that Hulu will exist on its own in five years, or as a tile within the larger Disney+. Erwich avoided the question. “I can’t speculate on that,” he told reporters January 11. “My focus on the next five years is our slate of programming.”
Erwich said that slate stretches into 2024 — the year that Disney can wholly own Hulu. Disney now has a controlling stake of 67 percent, with 33 percent held by NBCUniversal. Contractually, Disney can buy out NBCU as of January 2024. Disney-owned content brands Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic exist as tiles on Disney+; Hulu does not.
The Hulu platform currently carries several smaller Marvel shows, including “Legion,” “Helstrom,” and “Hit-Monkey.” At a TCA executive session, when asked about the possibility of adding more Marvel titles, Erwich said Marvel “will make the decisions best for that franchise and for that brand.”
“Our fans are really enjoying the output on our platform on both ‘Hit-Monkey’ and ‘M.O.D.O.K.’ at this time and, I think, will continue to do so,” Erwich said.
A person with knowledge of Disney’s thinking, but who was not authorized to speak on the matter, told IndieWire that brand association and serving fans were the sole drivers of the company’s decision to place the Netflix Marvel series on Disney+. Distribution decisions reside with Disney Media Entertainment Distribution, the person added, so this was not a Marvel call.
Sex and violence aside, there’s a very Disney reason to bring all Marvel shows under the Disney+ roof: It’s good for the Marvel brand and its attendant passion for alternate, cross-fertilized MCUs. And if Disney+ can accept Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, couldn’t the foul-mouthed Deadpool follow?
Until recently, Hulu teamed with the Disney-owned FX for “FX on Hulu,” a confusing brand launched in March 2020 and abandoned last December. Critically acclaimed programs under that brand included “Reservation Dogs,” “Devs,” “Mrs. America,” and “A Teacher.” FX remains as a tile and a content hub on Hulu.
IndieWire asked Hulu and NBCU representatives if Hulu could exist as a Disney+ tile while competitor NBCUniversal owns a minority stake. A Hulu spokesperson declined comment; representatives for Comcast and NBCUniversal did not immediately respond. Comcast is the parent company of NBCU, which owns streaming service Peacock.
As a hub, Hulu also offers subscriptions to premium services such as HBO Max, Cinemax, Starz, and Showtime, none of which are owned by Disney. Certain programming on ABC, Freeform, and FX — all Disney owned — is also available on the Hulu SVOD service one day after airing. Disney also bundles streaming services, Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+.
As of the end of 2021, the global brand of Disney+ had nearly 130 million subscribers, with 43 million of those in the U.S. Hulu, which only serves the U.S. market, had just over 45 million subscribers between streaming on-demand and Live TV subscriptions. Would the technical lift for rolling Hulu into Disney+ be worthwhile for the relatively limited American market?
“Disney+ has served as the home for some of the most beloved brands in the industry, and the addition of these live-action shows brings more from the Marvel brand together, all in one place,” Disney Streaming president Michael Paull said in Tuesday’s press announcement. “We have experienced great success with an expanded content offering on Disney+ across our global markets and are excited to continue that here in the U.S. as well by offering our consumers not only great content with the new Marvel additions, but also a set of features that help ensure a viewing experience most suitable for them and their family.”
If Disney+ is trying to become a something-for-everyone platform that’s better positioned to compete with Netflix, this is a pretty good move. Another one would be a Hulu tile. Perhaps that’s next.