Fandom franchises could be key to streaming growth

Last month, financial news outlet Bloomberg caused a ripple among “Doctor Who” fans when it reported that the Walt Disney Company had expressed interest in securing global streaming rights for a new series of the program.

The report, published on July 21, said the program would potentially stream on Disney+ around the world while simultaneously airing on the BBC in the United Kingdom, where it has been broadcast since the 1960s.

Discussions between Disney and the BBC were in early stages and might not materialize into a formal agreement, Bloomberg cautioned. It could also complicate existing domestic deals in place that cover streaming rights for the show — at the moment, HBO Max holds the rights to past episodes of the program under a deal that lasts through 2023, while BBC America operator AMC holds the rights to offer current episodes of the program on cable and AMC+.

If a Disney tie-up with the BBC over “Doctor Who” does come through, it would indicate yet another move by a domestic media company to grab streaming rights to a major franchise in order to fuel its own streaming ambitions — a trend that has increased over the last few years as studios move content off aggregate streamers in favor of launching their own services.

No one has suffered this trend more than Netflix, which has seen the departure of several high-profile franchises from its service in recent years. The streaming service paid $100 million to keep the hit sitcom "Friends" on Netflix for one additional year after its initial agreement expired at the end of 2018, only to ultimately lose the show to Warner Bros. Discovery's own startup service, HBO Max. The same thing happened a year later when NBCUniversal's Peacock grabbed the exclusive streaming rights to “The Office” from Netflix.

Andrew Freedman, a partner and equity research analyst for the investment firm Hedgeye, said popular franchises like Friends, The Office and Doctor Who have a significant amount of cultural value that can help a budding streamer gain more prominence with television viewers both domestically and internationally.

"Those franchises are great to market your service, to bring an audience into your service, and also to keep them there," Freedman said in a phone interview.

Like Peacock with “The Office”, other streaming services have abandoned licensing agreements to market their own content for their own streaming initiatives. Paramount Global wasted no time announcing several new shows rooted in its popular “Star Trek” franchise when it rekindled CBS All Access as Paramount+ last year. AMC has leaned hard on its popular “Walking Dead” franchise to market AMC+ as a destination for die-hard fans of that program.

No one has stood to benefit more from fandom than Disney: Its three streaming services — Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ — include some most-popular and culturally-significant television shows and movies in modern history. Disney+ alone offers access to every Star Wars movie, films featuring characters from Marvel Comics and all episodes of the Fox animated sitcom "The Simpsons." Its general entertainment service, Hulu, offers full seasons of popular adult animation shows "Family Guy" and "Futurama" along with prime-time shows from ABC and Fox.

While those franchises may be particularly strong in the United States, they may not necessarily resonate with viewers in the broader global market, where streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ see potential to grow. Freedman said this could be one reason why Disney is interested in possibly acquiring streaming rights to Doctor Who: The program could help generate interest in Disney+ in countries where the show is popular.

"If you think about Doctor Who, it sits within its own universe," Freedman said. "If you look at what Disney has done with Marvel, it really fits in with their streaming framework."