Who Will Be the King of Online Content: Netflix Versus Disney—Data Sheet

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(Fortune senior writer Michal Lev-Ram is filling in for Adam today.)

One particular line in columnist Maureen Dowd’s excellent, recent interview with Disney CEO Bob Iger in The New York Times caught my attention: “What Netflix is doing is making content to support a platform,” the long-time head of the Mouse House told Dowd when asked about his deep-pocketed, Silicon Valley competitor. “We’re making content to tell great stories. It’s very different.”

With all due respect to “Hollywood’s nicest CEO,” as Dowd refers to Iger, I’m not so sure I understand—or buy—the distinction. Netflix is just as interested in making content to tell great stories as Disney is interested in making content to support a platform, especially now that it is launching its own streaming service. (Disney+ makes its debut next month.) What I do agree with, though, is that content is king, regardless of the distribution pipes. And I also agree that, with streaming services well on their way to ubiquity in much of the developed world, content will soon not just be key but the sole differentiator in the battle between entertainment juggernauts like Disney and Netflix.  

Iger didn’t explicitly make either of these latter statements in his interview with Dowd, which focused on his impressive career and his new memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime. But his strategy over the last few years shows that he has placed “great stories” above all, a move that’s arguably as prescient as Netflix’s early pivot from DVDs to streaming.

In late 2014, I wrote a profile on Iger, highlighting the many ways in which the CEO had made big and early bets on new technologies. Under his leadership, Disney was the first entertainment company to put TV episodes on iTunes. Iger also rolled out RFID-enabled wristbands at Disney World and was an early adopter of drones (to shoot film footage) and virtual reality (to “see” the blueprints of his then-nonexistent Shanghai theme park).

But in the years since my story, it often seemed Iger was lagging behind—more than a decade after Netflix launched its streaming service, Disney is finally unveiling its own. That’s one way to interpret his timing. Another way, though, is to realize that my story didn’t focus nearly enough on the other big bet Iger made: While Netflix was building out its pipes and its streaming audience, Iger invested billions of dollars in content. Not just any content, but the best content. The kind that makes for valuable, long-lasting intellectual property.

Over the years, Iger bought up Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and, most recently, 21st Century Fox. Now, as Disney finally launches its long-awaited streaming service, Netflix is trying to amass a library of original content not just big enough but great enough to match Disney’s ridiculously rich, must-see archives.

Which one has the tougher challenge? I’m not sure. But I do know that for both companies, it comes down to telling great stories—so great that they will support a platform.

Michal Lev-Ram

On Twitter: @mlevram

Email: michal.levram@fortune.com


The animals will love it if you do. Have a hankering to engage in some urban beekeeping, arctic fox photography, or paddleboarding with a corgi? Airbnb rolls out its “Animal Experiences” today and CEO Brian Chesky tries to explain the importance of the effort to Fortune. “There’s very few people that are uninterested in animals,” Chesky said. And, he points out: “There are only so many zoos.”

Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. At a hardware event in New York City on Wednesday, Microsoft surprised and then surprised again. After unveiling a bunch of boring updates to its Surface line of tablets and laptops (USB-C, wahoo!), the company brought out a folding Windows tablet with two 9-inch screens, dubbed the Surface Neo, and then a folding Android phone with two almost-6-inch screens, called the Surface Duo. Both cool-looking devices go on sale in fall 2020 at undisclosed prices. (YouTuber Marques Brownlee has a great preview.) Microsoft also revealed its own version of Apple’s Airpods, just as rumors mount that Apple is revising its gadget with active noise cancellation tech.

It’s a light and tumble journey. The price of trading stocks online has dropped to zero. A few years after startup Robinhood hit the scene offering free trading, this week Schwab, TD Ameritrade, and E*Trade dropped their charges to match on trades of stocks, ETFs, and options on U.S. and Canadian exchanges. And amid rumors that it planned to go public and let everyone trade its own stock for free, too, Robinhood this summer raised more than $300 million from VCs.

Just a fine and fancy ramble. As Adam previewed in the newsletter last week, hundreds of startup investors and entrepreneurs met at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco on Tuesday to discuss Wall Street’s role in helping companies go public. “We’re not out to start a fistfight, we’re not out to vilify a particular bank,” famed VC and longtime critic of traditional IPOs Bill Gurley told Bloomberg afterwards. 

I do believe it’s true. With the Supreme Court preparing to hear arguments on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president for retail and people, signed a brief to the justices in favor of upholding the Obama-era rules. “We are distressed at the prospect of ripping our DACA colleagues from the fabric of our company,” Cook and O’Brien wrote in the brief. “This issue is a moral one: Our country made a deal with a highly vulnerable population interested in a bright future, and we should keep that deal.”

The zookeeper is very fond of rum. I think The Next Web may have had the perfect headline for this story about the planned combination of two online “content” purveyors: Taboola and Outbrain, the two worst companies in the world, are merging.

(Headline reference explainer video.)


With computers getting increasingly good at making fake photos, fake videos, and even fake phone calls from the boss, policymakers are gearing up to do something about the problem. Stephen Wolfram, famed software developer and tech thinker, has a few ideas about fighting so-called deep fakes. But it may not be as easy as programming A.I. apps to root out the phonies, he warns:

Machine learning on its own won’t save us. There’s not going to be a pure “fake or not” detector that can run on any image or video. Yes, there’ll be ways to protect oneself against being “faked” by doing things like wearing a live cellular automaton tie. But the real way to combat deep fakes, I think, is to use blockchain technology—and to store on a public ledger cryptographic hashes of both images and sensor data from the environment where the images were acquired. The very presence of a hash can guarantee when an image was acquired; “triangulating” from sensor and other data can give confidence that what one is seeing was something that actually happened in the real world.


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Have you ever ridden a bike downhill fast, I mean really fast? It can be exhilarating. I thought I was into it–until I read about these crazy kids in Medellín, Colombia who hit speeds of almost 80 miles per hour hurtling down steep Andean slopes. Yikes.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.