Disney made a lot of promises for its streaming service—many of which, as far as its content is concerned, it kept. But the service itself, Disney+, so far is messy, unreliable, and riddled with bugs.
Over a year after it was first announced, Disney+ is finally arriving next week in Australia, and is full of cartoons, superheroes, and space wizards for you to gawk at. Last week, Gizmodo got a chance to check out the new streaming service app in its final form and speak with the team behind Disney+’s launch.
The long-awaited, heavily hyped streaming service arrived in the U.S. this week wrapped in fanfare not only over its content offerings but also, notably, because a significant number of users are initially getting the service for free. Just as soon as Disney+ arrived, however, reports of service failures and error messages dogged the product to such an extent that Disney issued an apology and said that demand had “exceeded our high expectations.” But that wasn’t its only problem. Users weren’t able to log in to their accounts. Its search tool turned up some questionable results. Customer service was unreachable. To the extent that the service couldn't be accessed.
Exceeded expectations taken into consideration, Disney knew that demand would be astronomical—it worked to ensure it. Those who aren’t getting the service for free had opportunities to snag it for less than its already low monthly subscription cost of $US7 ($10) (or $US13 ($19) for a bundle that includes ESPN+ and ad-supported Hulu, another unbelievable steal). And while its content offerings are solid—we knew they would be, after all—having some of the best films and series in entertainment is essentially worthless if people can’t actually watch them.
For a company that had all the tools, time, and money to launch a serious Netflix competitor, Disney served up a half-baked, quirk-filled product with dodgy functionality. It’s embarrassing.
Something went wrong
The bugs started pretty much immediately. The morning of the launch, Disney+ repeatedly crashed for many users attempting to access the service. It crashed on the web. It crashed on phones. It crashed on Xbox, Roku, PS4, and seemingly all other devices. It crashed everywhere! And while a service bending under the weight of high demand is neither unheard of nor uncommon, attempts to contact Disney+ customer service—as some were prompted to do—proved futile, with some Redditors reporting they were stuck on hold for hours.
When I attempted to contact Disney+ customer service on Tuesday with a question about billing, I was disconnected from the call twice. The third time I called, I waited on hold for 37 minutes before finally hanging up. A support chat box that I accessed on the Disney+ website told me my wait time was less than 30 minutes to be connected with a representative. I eventually closed the window after about 40 minutes passed without a word from the company.
Longer-than-usual wait times are, again, to be expected when demand is high. Try the line the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom in mid-July! But it seems obvious that Disney+ and its support network weren’t prepared for primetime this week. After all, it should not have been a surprise that the year-long free trial it offered to tens of millions of Verizon customers would lead to high demand. (Verizon, a U.S. telco, which changed its customer support welcome message to address inquiries about Disney+, was also unreachable by phone on Tuesday.) Disney+ customer service was still jammed as of midday Wednesday, when I tried to reach a representative and was on hold for well over an hour.
Another reason why Disney+ is frustrating so far relates to the glitchiness and inconsistency across devices. When some features didn’t launch on the website, they might on mobile or a tablet. For example, after the website would not allow me to add multiple user profiles, I was finally able to do so on the iOS app. But then those user profiles wouldn’t should up on the website. Most finally appeared when I logged out and back in, but one avatar displayed a blank circle where a Stormtrooper should have been. But everything looked fine when I logged into the account from an iPad. Still, the avatars disappeared and reappeared whenever I switched devices, and while an inability to choose a cartoon character for your user profile doesn’t make the service unusable, the relentlessness of the bugs underscores the myriad technical failures of Disney+.
Outside of avatars, stuff just didn’t seem to show up where or how it needed to appear. The drop-down menu in the upper-righthand corner of the service on desktop lost its dark outline at one point, leaving user profile avatars floating over content selections. The window that plays out the remainder of a movie’s credits glitched on me, too, showing what appeared to be some sort of warning message. Bugs like these seem quaint compared to reports of users getting locked out entirely or having to relaunch the app repeatedly after it crashes.
Beyond the bugs, some of Disney+’s tools simply suck, especially compared to other streaming services. Search is the worst. I noticed that slight variations on popular terms, such as “mandloran” or “mrvl” turned up a “no results found” message. (Confusingly, Disney+ correctly displayed Marvel content, when I searched “marvl.” Netflix worked with a variety of misspellings.) I also got the “no results” error message when I searched “natgeo” as well as “nat geo.” That the service can’t populate results for commonly used shorthand for National Geographic gives the impression that people are going to have a tricky time finding content unless they spell it out nearly to the exact letter.
Beyond an inability to understand slight variations on titles and topics, the service also appears to be returning some highly questionable search results. Based on a tip from a reader, Gizmodo learned that searching the term “bitch” on the platform not only returns multiple women-led titles but also a National Geographic documentary about Princess Diana. We reached out to Disney+ about the search function and did not immediately hear back. (Searching “bitch” also returned titles containing the word “witch,” but others, including Diana: In Her Own Words, did not appear to contain similar words.)
Disney+ launched with a relatively modest roster of service-exclusive originals, which isn’t that big of a deal for Disney considering its biggest bet—the live-action Star Wars series The Mandalorian—is enough of a draw on its own. Plus, it has decades worth of beloved and widely successful filmmaking to beef up its appeal. Put another way, Disney+ is effectively the antithesis of Netflix: nearly all original content and most of it quite good.
Even if you have zero intention of ever watching a single Disney film on the service, the selection of Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic content could justify the $8.99 per month price tag. But much of Disney’s content can’t be rented anymore—meaning if you do want to watch it, in many cases you have to buy it, which can run you around $20+ for some titles. If you’re looking for anything R-rated or racy—like Deadpool, which Disney owns by way of Marvel—you won’t find it on Disney+, as the service offers purely family-friendly content.
You will, however, be able to stream adult-oriented content on ad-supported Hulu if you opt for the $US13 ($19) bundle that includes ESPN+ (and Hulu is where its recently acquired FX content will live because Disney owns virtually everything now).
Editor's Note: We won't have access to the above bundle in Australia and it's still unclear which streaming services will continue to house non kid-friendly content owned by Disney after Disney+ launches here.
For all the justifiable fanfare around the content, though, I wondered what would come of Disney’s decision to unseal the vault and let its more, shall we say, controversial films again see the light of day. I wasn’t the only one. Several racist or otherwise fucked up scenes that have appeared in its films will be scrubbed from the versions that appear on the service, though those changes to such films aren’t necessarily new. As for other classics with scenes or depictions that haven’t aged especially well—such as Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp, among others—they’ll come with disclaimers that read: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
Disney+ has also faced blowback over its catalogue of 30 seasons of The Simpsons, which now lives on its platform. Fans have noted the service cropped the episodes to fit a widescreen format, cutting off some visual cues for jokes. (For what it’s worth, this is hardly the first time The Simpsons has beed cropped.)
All the classic Simpsons episodes on Disney+ are in cropped widescreen format — this means you miss out on tons of great visual jokes, like how Duff, Duff Lite and Duff Dry all come from the same tube. pic.twitter.com/cTy9adulFl
— Tristan Cooper (@TristanACooper) November 12, 2019
The aforementioned exceptions aside, however, Disney+ content is solid. It was always going to be, and we all more or less knew what we were signing up for (which is less than can be said for Apple TV+). But good content isn’t the only thing that makes a good service. If you can’t use a service the way it’s intended to be used, it’s infuriating. Disney+ had every resource at its disposal to launch with a pristine product. The company didn’t need to rush out something broken or incomplete, but it did.
In the U.S. Disney+ offers subscribers the first 30 seasons of The Simpsons as part of its content portfolio. But there is is one episode of the 662 that has been left off the platform, and it's because of Michael Jackson. Content warning: this story involves child sexual abuse.
Again, the sales pitch still sounds good. Every subscription includes unlimited downloads on up to 10 devices, ultra-crisp 4K and HDR viewing, and simultaneous streaming on up to four devices. In other words, Disney+ offers standard many features that Netflix charges a premium for. Downloading content is also pretty simple, and finding it within the app is a breeze.
But Disney+ does lack useful features that make other services great. As with Apple TV+, Disney+ doesn’t give users the power to more effectively curate their recommendations by indicating whether they like or don’t like a specific show or film. The service does have a “Recommended for You” section, and including such a feature would certainly help improve whatever algorithm is interpreting user behaviour to spit out suggested content. If you can’t stand musicals, for example, it’ll likely be impossible to totally scrub those suggestions from your feed before you’ve spent a significant amount of time on the platform. It’s all just a jumble at this point.
So the issues might not last forever. Bugs in software design are inevitable and can obviously be fixed. But Disney had all the time and money in the world to beta test its service and work out the kinks. It’s unclear why it would launch Disney+, when it was so clearly unfinished. After all, the new streaming service itself was the whole point.
I’m sitting here on my couch having just watched a live-action Star Wars TV series and I still can’t believe it.