Disney CFO Jay Rasulo fired a powerful rejoinder on Thursday to companies such as Time Warner Cable that say they are weighing the possibility of offering consumers low-priced programming packages without ESPN and other sports channels. They do so at their peril, he told the Citigroup Global Entertainment, Media, and Telecommunications Conference. “Fans love ESPN,” he says. “They love the brand (and) they love the programming.” Only news channels exceed ESPN’s 6,700 hours of live, original programming. That’s attractive for advertisers because fans usually don’t record games so they can skip past the commercials. Also, he says, ESPN fans are more likely than other viewers to subscribe to cable’s broadband and phone services. That’s why, despite the tough talk “I can’t imagine that any of them will want to move their business models to skinnied down packages.” Cable and satellite providers have limited opportunities to offer tiers without ESPN — it typically has to be on the first or second most popular offering.
Disney’s spirited numbers guy also chafed at the suggestion that the entertainment giant is no longer a growth company. “If you take out the downturn of 2009 and a few specific factors….there’s a lot of growth left in our portfolio,” he says. The recession took a toll on the theme parks and retail businesses. Disney also found it hard to follow its own successes. The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films “had explosive studio results.” In addition, ABC had a strong run with hits including Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Grey’s Anatomy. Rasulo says he now expects “more balanced growth” as the company expands consumer product sales overseas, integrates Marvel’s superhero productions, and ESPN continues to expand. “Unlike other media companies, we have a very clear strategy of an ecosystem” where Disney controls both the content and distribution.
Rasulo says that yesterday’s distribution deal with Comcast reinforces the pay TV ecosystem. The agreement is mostly notable for its breadth and depth, although he says that the opportunity to launch on-demand apps for Disney’s channels is “the big new piece.” Disney was willing to make a 10 year commitment because “a lot of our content deals like the NFL are long term in duration….you want to assure yourself on the revenue side.” It will also have an immediate benefit in the way Disney accounts for the revenues it receives from Comcast: Up to now ESPN couldn’t recognize some revenues until it had shown a certain amount of live programming. “As a result of this new deal with Comcast, that will go away,” Rasulo says. The company will include an additional $70M to $80M for last quarter and also for this one, adding about two cents a share to the earnings for each period. Without the deal, the revenues would have shown up on the books later in the year.
Rasulo also is encouraged by Disney’s overseas investments. For example it now has about 100 Disney Channels, up from 19 about five years ago. The Shanghai Disney Resort under construction also “has the potential to be our second biggest resort around the world” over time.