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‘Queen’s Gambit’ is Netflix’s biggest hit. Would Disney make it?

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Netflix says "The Queen's Gambit" is the most-watched limited series in its history. Some 62 million households saw the show about a chess prodigy in its first four weeks of release. 

"The Queen's Gambit" is the quintessential Netflix hit, a scripted drama created by an award-winning filmmaker about a flawed protagonist that explores a very specific corner of the world. It's the type of hit Netflix excelled at in its earliest days, and had struggled to find at times in the past year or two.

The data point comes with a couple big caveats, but "The Queen's Gambit" is a big hit by any measure. It ranks among the most-watched Netflix series ever, and has singlehandedly revitalized interest in chess. Sales of chess sets have increased 87% since the show's debut, and sales of chess books have climbed 603%.

Yet "The Queen's Gambit" will also have slipped out of the cultural zeitgeist before the year is over. Netflix has created an ecosystem where there are new manias every couple weeks. "The Queen's Gambit" supplanted "Emily in Paris" atop the Netflix charts, and will inevitably be overtaken by "The Crown," or "Selena" or "Cobra Kai."

These short bursts of interest represent a new era in media created by the abundance of the internet, according to media executive Tal Shachar:

"We only see more and bigger fads at faster paces. That we have more diversity than ever, and yet somehow less at any one point in time."

Disney, Netflix's biggest competitor, employs a different strategy, one that Shachar captures in the second part of this paragraph.

"It also means that increasingly the real value or trick won't be in blowing up … but rather in holding on to the 15 seconds of fame once we have it."

While Netflix holds onto attention with an unending barrage of new material, Disney creates a handful of big moments and franchises, some of which have remained in the culture for almost a century. Its streaming service has thrived with just one show, "The Mandalorian," which is itself based on a movie from 1977.

"The Mandalorian" is a lot more in-demand online than "The Queen's Gambit," per Parrot Analytics.

Some clever folks on Twitter argued Disney would've been ready for that surge in chess and pre-licensed a bunch of chess sets to collect some of the revenue. After its success, maybe Disney would create themed chess stations on its cruises and hotels. I regret to inform these people that chess is not a lucrative side business.

But I wonder if Disney would even bother with "The Queen's Gambit." It's an adult drama that features drug abuse and has almost no merchandising potential. Disney knows that the big money is in making shows that speak to kids but also appeal to adults. How many parents purchased Baby Yoda Halloween costumes this year?

In the olden days of linear TV, we would rely on Nielsen ratings to quantify how popular shows are, and contrast their respective strengths. Now? We're left with self-reported numbers, third-party estimates or no numbers at all.

But even without comparable figures, each show embodies a contest between Netflix and Disney for the soul of Hollywood. Netflix released all the episodes of its show at once, maximizing attention for about a month, while Disney has rolled out episodes weekly, giving its customers a reason to come back every week. 

A third show, HBO's "The Undoing," debuted between the two of them. Like the best HBO shows, it has built its audience as the episodes have unfurled.

These distinctions have made covering the competition between these companies more interesting, assessing which strategies work and which don't.

And yet, in Hollywood's unending march towards monoculture, both Netflix and Disney are racing to replicate the strengths of their biggest competitor. Disney doesn't have enough new shows in the pipeline to generate constant interest, a fact it is trying to remedy with a recent restructuring of the company to prioritize streaming. Netflix wants to sustain its hits for longer and create franchises so replenishing the well gets a little bit easier.  

Maybe I'll get a Disney chess set after all. -- Lucas Shaw

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