Disney sent Big Media shares into a tailspin two years ago this week when it acknowledged that ESPN was losing pay TV subscribers faster than the company anticipated.
Now they’re down again — this time over Disney’s long-awaited response: It said last night that it will launch sports and entertainment digital subscription services that people will be able to buy directly from the company — without a pay TV subscription.
Disney’s down 4.8%, followed by Discovery Communications -3.6% (it touched a 52 week low), Viacom -3.0% (also touching a 52 week low), Fox -1.6%, AMC Networks -1.1%, and CBS -1.0%.
Investors fear that Disney CEO Bob Iger positioned his company to declare war on pay TV’s expanded basic bundle — the model that made networks some of the most consistently profitable businesses in western Capitalism.
They stood united in their belief that consumers should be required pay for hundreds of channels in order to receive the 17 or so that they really want. Now they’re preparing to jump from a high-profit model to a low-profit one with companies engaging in hand-to-hand combat to attract their own fans on the internet.
Disney’s announcements resonated because many believed that it “is responsible for holding what’s left of the bundle together,” Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger says. “Those that hold that view have been waiting for Disney to drop this bombshell, signaling the end of the bundle as we know it. Did Disney just do that?”
Perhaps. Cowen & Co’s Doug Creutz says the announcements “may well accelerate problems for the whole ecosystem via atomization of content and an overpopulation of content apps.”
The key word is “accelerate” — because the Q2 earnings season has shown that the status quo grows wobblier by the day.
Distributors provided overwhelming evidence that the only debate about TV cord cutting involves how fast it’s happening, not whether it’s a thing.
The pace seems to be pretty fast: “The second quarter saw the largest quarterly [pay TV] subscriber decline ever,” with a drop of 941,000 traditional subs — or 2.7% — MoffettNathanson Research’s Craig Moffett says.
Viacom CEO Bob Bakish acknowledged that “the ship has sailed on everyone having the $100 bundle.”
CBS chief Les Moonves seems to agree: His report to analysts this week centered on his plans to introduce a 24/7 sports streaming service, take CBS All Access abroad, and give internet users who don’t subscribe to pay TV an opportunity to pay to watch the upcoming heavyweight boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.
But Disney’s in a different class. ESPN is the most expensive basic cable channel, which distributors consider a must-have. And its studio dominates Hollywood, accounting for more than 60% of last year’s industry profits.
That’s why it was startling to hear that the company’s previously announced ESPN-branded online subscription service will launch next year with a robust collection of major league games that cable and satellite companies might want — not sideshows like badminton or rugby.
Disney says that it will include “approximately 10,000 live regional, national, and international games and events a year, including Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, Grand Slam tennis, and college sports. Individual sport packages will also be available for purchase, including MLB.TV, NHL.TV and MLS Live.”
And Iger didn’t check with cable and satellite distributors to see whether this might fracture their relationship. Indeed, he says that under its contracts “if we wanted to bring ESPN direct [to consumers] we could.”
Disney underscored its readiness to go to war with pay TV, and other programmers, by announcing its plan to launch a direct-to-consumer entertainment subscription service with Disney and Pixar movies.
That includes ending in 2019 its deal that puts the studios’ new releases on Netflix. Disney will decide later whether to also yank Marvel and Star Wars.
That contributed to a 2.7% drop today in Netflix shares.
Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter, one of the company’s most vigorous critics, calls Disney’s decision a “huge loss” for Netflix since its original content “isn’t even in the same ballpark as Disney.”
If other programmers also decide to go it alone, then they may “follow Disney’s lead and pull content” from Netflix, he says.
Morgan Stanley’s Benjamin Swinburne is less concerned.
“Netflix has already seen popular IP move off its platform, recently including content from 21st Century Fox and AMC Networks, both of which shifted to the more friendly Hulu,” he says.
Meanwhile, he adds, Netflix has “already shifted aggressively to original programming.” If it doesn’t have to pay Disney an estimated $300 million a year for 10 films, then it “could free up some capital to be redeployed by Netflix.”
Disney loses the cash from Netflix while it builds a war chest to pay for its digital armada. It warned Wall Street to expect earnings to fall as it makes “a significant investment in an annual slate of original movies, TV shows, short-form content and other Disney-branded exclusives for the service.”
No wonder investors are spooked — even though Disney offered few specifics about how much it will invest, or how much it will ask consumers to pay.
It was relatively easy for them to get rich betting on media companies engaged in a cozy form of co-opetition that forced consumers to overpay for TV. But they don’t have to do that anymore with Netflix and many others offering less expensive options.
The message from Iger: It’s every company for itself. And Disney’s preparing for war.
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