Disney CEO Bob Iger sought today to change the dispiriting storyline about ESPN — the company’s biggest profit driver — telling analysts he’s optimistic about its ability to attract subscribers, and command high prices.
“We’ve taken a more bullish position on the future of ESPN’s sub base,” he says. The growth of small pay TV packages that exclude the sports channel has “abated.” Meanwhile the growth of live streaming services including Sling TV and an upcoming one from Hulu provide “options they haven’t had before.”
In addition, ESPN plans to introduce its own direct-to-consumer service next year. “That gives us an interesting opportunity to create a new product” that’s “more user friendly” and enables Disney to “mine data that can improve our advertising prospects and tailor the product in a more customized way.”
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He isn’t worried about the ratings declines for NFL games. Although he would “love to see the ratings higher,” Iger says it’s “a little too soon to jump to conclusions. We’re going to be patient. It’s far too early for us to suggest that we’re concerned.”
The recent drops “may be aberrational,” he adds — possibly reflecting that the strength of some teams “is not what it was.”
Iger told analysts not to worry about Nielsen’s recent report of the pay TV universe that showed a 3% drop in October in the number of homes ESPN reaches.
“Given the fact that it contradicted what other observers were seeing, we think it’s important more scrutiny is given to it,” he says. Nielsen also doesn’t (or possibly, due to contractual restrictions, can’t) count digital subs. “That has to happen on a more timely basis than it has been happening.”
The CEO gave investors more reason to speculate that Disney might try to buy a digital distribution company. Recent rumors have revolved around Twitter and Netflix.
A direct relationship with consumers is “something that’s important for us to do,” he says. “Whether there will be more or not, I cannot say.”
Iger says it’s “too early to speculate” about the impact a Donald Trump presidency will have — although dropping the corporate tax rate, which the president-elect says he supports, “must be addressed.”
Some analysts believe the new administration will reverse the FCC’s net neutrality rules that bar Internet providers from playing favorites with different content providers.
That wouldn’t appear to bother Iger. “We don’t really have a public position to take” on net neutrality, he says. “Frankly it’s not even something that’s been discussed with me in the very recent past.”
Meanwhile, the company has “already prepared a bust of President-Elect Trump to go into our Hall of the Presidents at Disney World.”
Iger kicked off the call warning analysts that Disney’s financial results in the 2017 fiscal year “will be an anomaly in our growth trajectory.”
CFO Christine McCarthy cited several culprits: ESPN will shoulder higher NBA costs from the first year of a new contract. The theme parks have expenses tied to the opening of Avatar Land at Walt Disney World, as well as about $40 million in additional expenses from last month’s Hurricane Matthew. The movie studio will have a tough time matching the sales it saw last year from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And consumer products face tough comparisons with Star Wars and Frozen merchandise sales, as well as the impact of weakening overseas currencies vs the U.S. dollar.
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