Investors need to stop thinking so much about ESPN’s short-term problems and appreciate its long-term opportunities, Disney CEO Bob Iger told attendees today at the opening of the MoffettNathanson Media and Communications Summit.
“If you’re running a company like this you can’t possibly run it with a great focus on quarterly results,” he said in response to a question about declining subscriptions at the company’s biggest profit center. His disclosure in August that the numbers would fall short of his expectations rocked Wall Street.
“We had seen a trend at ESPN in the subscription front that I don’t want to call sobering but was not as robust” as anticipated, he says. “We erred on the side of giving all of you a sense of what we were seeing….So we said it, and the rest is history.”
Iger attributes the shortfall to ESPN’s absence on some new pay TV bundles that offered fewer channels, at a lower price, than the conventional expanded basic package.
Still, “we feel great about ESPN,” the CEO says. It’s “the strongest brand in sports” — a field that has “a huge amount of value,” in part because so many people watch it live and can’t skip past the ads.
The qualities make the business “very very attractive to us and you could argue to others,” including digital and mobile video platform providers.
Since August, Disney has had three priorities for ESPN: keep the brand strong, win at digital and mobile, and become more aggressive about winning carriage on skinny bundles.
And Iger says there’s been progress, especially on the distribution side. “We are in discussions with existing and new distributors and I feel very encouraged…You cannot launch a new multichannel platform or bundle successfully without ESPN. The numbers would be not even close to what they’d be with ESPN.”
The CEO also defended ESPN’s update show SportsCenter which some company watchers say is becoming less relevant as fans turn to other platforms to find out what’s up with their favorite teams.
Iger says the show “is probably more popular than it has ever been but that popularity goes beyond the channel ESPN.”
On other matters, the Disney chief says that companies like his must become accustomed to offering all past episodes of a show for binge watching instead of relying on a traditional syndication model.
Although “the economics of the business today do not fully justify doing that,” over the long term “keeping the value of a [pay TV] platform alive is critical and keeping all episodes in one place could be a contributing factor to that.”
Iger remains upbeat about Hulu’s plan to offer live streams of pay TV channels in addition to specific programs offered on VOD. Disney — which co-owns the service with Comcast and Fox — is “in discussion with them about our channels, prices, etc.”