On Disney+ and other streaming platforms, nostalgia reigns

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There are plenty of reasons to want to escape the current moment. Politics, the environment, whatever is going on with Lindsay Lohan. So, it makes sense that nostalgia has completely taken over our culture. Just consider the popularity of bygone shows like The Office and Friends on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. If the trend emerging on newly announced streaming platforms is any indication, we might all be stuck in the past pretty soon.

On Disney+, which arrives November 12, there will be new series like the Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian, but also a treasure trove of older films previously put in the Disney Vault. Many of these films, like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, are ripe with their own form of obvious nostalgia. They are classics after all. But some of the options have little appeal beyond the fact that millennials watched them when we were children.

In a new series on Disney+, Lizzie McGuire will no longer be a middle schooler dealing with a bully alongside her two best friends — she’ll be a 30-year-old woman navigating the ins and outs of New York City life. Meanwhile, Monsters Inc. will get its own TV show, alongside a great deal of older Disney Channel Originals — Smart House, Luck of the Irish, Double Teamed, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century among them. There’s less of an obvious appeal to new, younger viewers, for these films. They’ve got bigger budget films with better animation and graphics to watch. As nice as it is to imagine the 12-year-olds who have mastered Tik Tok finding Smart House amusing, it's pretty unlikely. Less unlikely are depressed and underemployed millennials watching these films well into adulthood in hopes of feeling...something.

But as Disney tries to take over the industry, they’re going to need to cover all of their bases. They’re definitely not the only company that has latched onto our generational yearning for the late ‘90s and early aughts’ content. The most-watched content on most streaming platforms is not the new stuff; it’s actually just three television shows.

Hulu has Seinfeld available to stream, as well as dozens of other old TV shows that maintain a cult-like following. Netflix just made a five-year $100 million deal with Jerry Seinfeld, which included acquiring the rights to stream Seinfeld. The platform is also paying an exorbitant amount of money to keep nostalgia heavy Friends and The Office as well. Friends reportedly cost Netflix $425 million, and they spent another $500 million for The Office, according to the Los Angeles Times. While that seems an unfathomable amount of money, research shows that 49% of Netflix subscribers would cancel their subscriptions if the platform removed those shows. According to Adweek, Netflix users spent 84 billion minutes watching The Office and Friends in 2018.

Friends is a particularly grievous example. The show’s 25th anniversary was treated as a cultural touchstone, despite how poorly the show aged. It’s confusing that the show still gets billions of minutes in front of viewers years after it went off the air because it wasn’t a good television show: the plots were simple, the jokes were cheap, and the characters were flat.

It seems like most of the entertainment major studios are willing to bankroll are simply remakes and reimaginations of things we already like and are already familiar with, or just pay the obscene fees in order to keep streaming shows whose only value is their nostalgia. Whether that’s because they perceive recreating successes of the past as a low stakes venture, or they’re unwilling to find creators who have new ideas, it leaves streaming platforms feeling like they’ve got one foot stuck in the past, even when they’re tasked with innovating entertainment for the future.