Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of most of the assets for 21st Century Fox is marrying two very distinct brands and two very different corporate cultures. The company, led by chairman and CEO Bob Iger, took the first step in the process today, announcing the top Fox TV executives who will make the move to Disney when the transaction is completed in early 2019.
There had been a lot of anticipation for the deal, which would create mega film and TV studios and cement Disney’s position as world’s top entertainment company. But now that the euphoria over the blockbuster pact is beginning to subside, questions are re-emerging about the practical side of integrating the Fox assets and executives into the Disney portfolio and team. As one observer put it, “the honeymoon is over.”
Some of the highest-profile Fox TV executives are headed to Disney including 21st Century Fox president and chairman and CEO of Fox Networks Group Peter Rice, Fox TV Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden, FX Networks CEO John Landgraf and National Geographic Partners CEO Gary E. Knell. (Also confirmed as going to Disney are 20th Century Fox TV presidents Jonnie Davis and Howard Kurtzman and Fox 21 TV president Bert Salke.)
The appointments, led by Rice — tipped a possible successor to Iger — and Walden and Landgraf, signify a total takeover by Fox of Disney’s TV assets who will be run by Fox execs. Additionally, the pending arrivals already are having an impact by expanding the pool of Disney executives with top-level titles, judging by the monikers the quartet were assigned in the combined entity: Rice will be Chairman, Walt Disney Television and Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks; Walden will be Chairman, Disney Television Studios and ABC Entertainment; Landgraf will be Chairman of FX Networks and FX Productions; and Knell will be Chairman of National Geographic Partners.
Disney and Fox have different corporate cultures, and sit at the two ends of the spectrum as being very generous (Fox) and very conservative (Disney) with their top titles. At Disney, there is one CEO, Iger. At 21st Century Fox, there have been a slew of them: James Murdoch, Rice, Walden, Gary Newman (who will remain at Fox), Landgraf, Knell, Nat Geo’s Courteney Monroe and 20th Century Fox movie studio chairman/CEO Stacey Snider. While that will not change in the new, bigger Disney, with Iger remaining as the sole CEO, the company is dramatically increasing the number of chairmen.
Currently, only Iger and the heads of large swaths of the company are chairmen; movie chief Alan Horn; Bob Chapek, head of Parks, Experiences and Consumer Products; Kevin Mayer, head of Direct-to-Consumer and International; as well as Ben Sherwood and James Pitaro, who share a chairman title, both Co-Chair of Disney Media Networks. (Sherwood is set to exit after the Disney-Fox deal closes.)
According to the announcement today, there will be four new chairmen on the TV side alone, led by Rice. Of the five executives reporting to him, the three who come from Fox (Walden, Landgraf and Knell) have chairman titles, while the other two, who are from Disney (Disney Channels Worldwide boss Gary Marsh and ABC News’ James Goldston) are presidents.
Additionally, there is one president-level executive at ABC Studios, Patrick Moran, and three at 20th Century Fox TV in Davis and Kurtzman on the broadcast side and Fox 21 TV Studios topper Salke. All will report to Walden. Similarly, there are three president-level executives under Landgraf at FX who are expected to join him at Disney (Nick Grad, Eric Schrier and Chuck Saftler), while Nat Geo’s Monroe, who is expected to join Knell, is currently CEO. At Disney’s cable networks, there is one president each at Disney Channels (Marsh) and Freeform (Tom Ascheim), and there are the companies’ top executives.
The Fox execs also reportedly come with star salaries. Word is that on average, Fox’s TV executives are paid at least 20% more than their Disney counterparts, and none of those drafted to join Disney are said to be taking a pay cut. Disney is known for its lower base salaries, though the company is said to be making up for that with compensation packages that include stock and bonuses.
Still, the disparity may trigger title and salary bump requests for incumbent Disney TV executives, and I hear the abundance of high-level titles in today’s release did not go unnoticed on the Disney lot.
The slew of CEO titles at Fox versus only one for Iger at Disney reflects the way those companies operate: At Disney, there is a strong corporate oversight, with Iger intimately involved in the work and decision-making of all departments. Meanwhile, Fox’s units have enjoyed autonomy in creative decisions, so inevitably there will be some adjustment as they join Disney.
There is also the issue of content vs. distribution. Disney had made the launch of its upcoming Disney-branded direct-to-consumer service, as well as the recently launched ESPN+ sports streaming platform, a top priority. There was a discussion following Disney’s March reorganization, when the company put all of its direct-to-consumer platforms, including Disney’s interest in Hulu, under Mayer, about its strategy of separating program development from distribution and linear content from digital. While there was much speculation over the past few months that some of the incoming Fox execs could get some oversight of streaming platforms, including Hulu, today’s announcement confirms that they will work on the traditional media side of the Disney’s portfolio.
One of the biggest challenges in bringing together entertainment companies that have significant overlap is the executive shakeups and layoffs that come with that.
Disney will be merging two major TV studios, 20th Century Fox TV and ABC Studios. The announcement today indicates the merger won’t happen right away, and 20th TV and ABC Studios will co-exist with their current leaderships intact at the close of the Disney-Fox deal. (20th TV, Fox 21 and ABC Studios were listed separately in the announcement, and all president-level execs on both sides were confirmed to be staying on.)
But, given the amount of savings Disney is projected to achieve by eliminating $2.6 billion in redundancies, there inevitably will be significant cuts at all levels of the combined TV studio division to eliminate the overlap, that will result in executive shakeups down the road. At least 5,000 people, 2,300 on the Fox side and 1,700 on the Disney side, are expected to be laid off in TV and film combined. (Some insiders and analysts have peg the number of pink slips at 5,000-6,000 or even more.)
Over at the ABC network, there have been no indications ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey, who reported to Sherwood and will now report to Walden, is contemplating a departure. Her predecessor, Paul Lee, left after Sherwood replaced Anne Sweeney as his boss, though that did not happen until a year into Sherwood’s tenure.
As for the brands, you have the family-friendly Disney, which, for the most part doesn’t even do R-rated movies, and Fox, whose movie studio produces unapologetically hard R-rated features like Deadpool and whose networks are considered the edgiest on the broadcast and the basic cable spectrum, as exemplified by such FX dramas as American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy and its spinoff Mayans M.C. This is different from previous Disney acquisitions of family entertainment-focused brands like Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm.
While rare, Disney has made investments in edgier content. The company has a 20% stake in Vice, as does 21st Century Fox. And Disney will control Hulu, which Iger has tipped as a possible adult-oriented streaming platform for the company, something FX’s own OTT service could fit into. Additionally, ABC Studios, through its ABC Signature division, has been venturing into edgy fare, including its Showtime comedy SMILF.
There clearly will be challenges fitting Disney and the Fox assets together, though observers are largely upbeat. “It’s going to be bumpy but I’m confident it will work,” one industry insider said, pointing to Iger’s leadership skills in navigating the merger as reason for the optimism.