Disney Says it Doesn’t Need Data to Make Great Shows

Disney’s Kevin Mayer onstage with Recode’s Peter Kafka
Disney’s Kevin Mayer onstage with Recode’s Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference. Tori Stolper for Vox Media

Netflix relied heavily on data to make programming decisions. Disney’s been in the business long enough, it doesn’t have to.

When it comes to deciding what shows and films to create for its new Disney+ streaming service, Disney is relying on its leaders’ creative instincts much more than it’s considering data points.

That’s what Kevin Mayer, chairman of direct-to-consumer and international at Disney, told Recode’s Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, one week after the launch of Disney+. The service debuted with an expansive library that includes its Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars catalogs, as well as a handful of new and exclusive movies and shows. It’s gradually going to build out its offerings, and it plans to do so prudently. It’s going to consider what the data predicts will play best with audiences — but it won’t be overly reliant on these metrics.

“We might not always follow the data,” Mayer told Kafka. “We might have great, creative ideas that don’t fit right into where the data would point you to make a program, so we’re going to use both our judgment or the ideas we have in place, the capacities that we have in place, and the data that tells us what to make. Certainly, we will be paying attention to that.”

Mayer said he believes it’s a “fallacy” that data can and should be used to make minute-by-minute creative choices. “Creative processes fundamentally don’t yield to that sort of analytical look,” he said.

Implicit in Mayer’s remarks is how heavily Netflix, a pioneer in the streaming space, has relied on data in its programming choices and the shortcomings of this approach. Measures such as Nielsen ratings, box office hauls, and focus groups, which media companies like Disney have long relied on, already inform them about what does and doesn’t resonate with their audiences.

As digital media executives Matthew Ball and Alex Kruglov recently explained on Recode, even Netflix has started to move away from such data-driven creative decisions:

Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos has begun to change his tune. In 2015, he admitted that data represented only 70 percent of the decision process, with the judgment 30 percent “coming on top.” In 2018, this had inverted to 70 percent gut, 30 percent data. By 2019, it was 80/20.

Of course, Disney has decades of experience in figuring out what works in entertainment — something Mayer noted on Tuesday. “We make programs that are super popular, so I think we have a good finger on the pulse of what consumers like — or actually love,” he said.

That’s not to say that Disney has all the advantages. Netflix is ahead in terms of the scale of its multinational video quality, and it has a more solid infrastructure in place. “They’ve been doing this a long, long time at a big scale,” Mayer said, though he added he believes Disney “has the best content on the planet.”

“I think we each will end up looking like each other to some degree,” he said of the Disney-Netflix dynamic.

To get there, Disney will need to perfect its technology. On Tuesday, Mayer assured Kafka that the technical issues Disney+ experienced last week when it launched were the result of a “technical detail” in the architecture of the app, rather than a broader structural issue. He added that Disney also experienced some “customer service issues” that compounded the situation.

In the end, Disney’s technical difficulties didn’t seem to matter that much to customers. The day after Disney+ launched, the company said 10 million people had signed up for the service.

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