Disney Gets Iger’s Second Show on the Road

The Mouse House is taking a page—or three—from “House of Cards.”  

Disney’s fiscal third-quarter report late Wednesday was an eventful one. The entertainment giant reported weaker-than-expected revenue and better-than-expected operating profit. That was due to an odd pairing reflective of a turbulent box office, slipping tourism in Florida and less cash going out the door because of Hollywood’s ongoing strikes. 

The company also used the occasion to announce a significant boost to some of its streaming prices to push more subscribers to its ad-supported tiers, along with a plan to start cracking down on password sharing sometime next year. 

In other words, it is acting like Netflix. The streaming giant that pioneered ad-free, binge-worthy TV with the “House of Cards” series more than a decade ago has been making the same pivots over the past year. Actual numbers from its ad-supported and account-sharing tiers still aren’t clear since the paid-sharing option only went live in late May for its major markets. 

But investors have applauded. Netflix shares have surged 87% over the past 12 months; Disney’s stock has slumped 19% in that time. The return of Robert Iger to Disney’s corner office hasn’t reversed that slump yet, and Wednesday’s results didn’t initially look like they would either. 

The stock slipped more than 1% initially in after-hours trading following the release, which showed disappointing revenue growth and operating margins at the company’s domestic theme parks division. It was hurt by the weaker business at the flagship Disney World park in Orlando, Fla. The recent quarter was also the fourth consecutive period of revenue declines for the linear networks business, which mostly reflects advertising and fees from the fast-shrinking traditional cable-TV business. 

Disney also lost about 300,000 subscribers from its domestic Disney+ service—triple the number that Wall Street had anticipated—which led to disappointing revenue from its direct-to-consumer business as well. In all, Disney’s total revenue grew only 4% year-over-year to $22.3 billion during the June quarter. It was the company’s worst growth rate in more than four years. 

But the stock then recovered during the company’s conference call during which Iger announced the latest increase to the company’s streaming prices. The hikes are targeted by design: Subscribers to the ad-free tiers of Disney+ and Hulu will see their monthly rates go up between 20% and 27% while prices for the company’s ad-supported tiers won’t change. 

“The advertising marketplace for streaming is picking up,” Iger said on the call. Netflix has noted in its investor calls that its cheaper ad-supported plan generates a higher average revenue-per-user than its standard plan, which costs more than twice as much every month.

Disney can’t afford to stop there, though. Unlike Netflix, it has enormous legacy TV and theatrical film businesses to manage through some notable market shifts. The latter has suffered lately from disappointing box-office sales for recent releases such as “The Haunted Mansion,” “Elemental” and even the long-awaited Indiana Jones sequel, “The Dial of Destiny.” 

Iger on Wednesday repeated an earlier commitment to improving the quality of the company’s movies while also reducing the number and production cost of its releases. But he also put the studio operation on top of his list of three businesses that “will drive the greatest growth and value creation over the next five years.” 

The company’s linear TV business was notably absent from that list. And Iger on Wednesday didn’t backtrack on comments made during a CNBC interview last month in which he seemed to raise the possibility of selling off some TV assets such as ABC and FX Networks. Disney also struck a notable $2 billion deal Tuesday with Penn Entertainment to allow the ESPN brand to be used in Penn’s online sports-betting service. 

But investors seeing dollar signs from divestitures should catch their breath; Iger noted Wednesday that any strategic moves with its TV networks would need to preserve its ability to produce content for its streaming operations. That will make any such deals complex, to say the least. 

He also splashed some needed cold water on the baseless-but-still-long-running speculation that the company could be an acquisition target for Apple, noting correctly that “anyone who wanted to speculate about such things would have to immediately consider the global regulatory environment, and I’ll say no more than that.” 

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