Disney has bigger problems than Ron DeSantis

Disney has bigger problems than Ron DeSantis


New York
CNN
 — 

Disney has found itself in the middle of a culture war battle that could end up transferring Disney World’s governance to a board appointed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. And that may be the least of Disney’s problems.

The company faces a media industry in turmoil, plunging cable subscriptions, a still-recovering box office, massive streaming losses, activist shareholders, possible reorganization and layoffs and growing labor disputes with employees. That’s a lot for CEO Bob Iger to handle.

Iger, who retired as CEO in 2020 only to be brought back in November, has been mostly quiet about his plans for the company since his return. That ends at 4:30 pm ET Wednesday when he is set to begin an earnings call with Wall Street investors.

Here’s what to look for on what is certain to be a closely-watched call.

Disney’s earnings are expected to fall nearly 30% from a year ago despite higher revenue, thanks to strong theme park sales and Avatar: the Way of Water, which grossed about $400 million in ticket sales in its two weeks in theaters at the end of last year on its way to more than $2.1 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.

The financial results might be the least interesting part of the call.

“We anticipate Disney is likely to introduce structural changes as well as cost cuts,” said Jessica Reif Ehrlich, analyst with Bank of America.

The expectation is that Iger will roll back the reorganization of the company’s Media and Entertainment Division that his hand-picked successor – and now predecessor – Bob Chapek announced in 2020, though the exact structure is not yet known.

“He has to address that first,” said Rief Ehlrich. “Everyone has to know what directions they’re going in.”

Along with the reorganization there could very well be job cuts. Layoffs have been widespread throughout the media industry, with expectations that there will be will fewer advertising dollars and spending by consumers in the year ahead. Disney has so far avoided any large layoff announcements.

Shares of Disney

(DIS)
are up nearly 20% since Iger’s return was announced in November, far better than the overall market but behind the gains in the same period at some other media companies, such as Netflix

(NFLX)
or Warner Bros. Discovery, the owner of CNN. But, clearly, investors are eager to hear Iger’s plans for restructuring and cutting costs.

“We do not believe that one person can single-handedly rescue the company, but CEO Iger’s return will force Disney to have an honest and courageous self-examination on what is working and what needs to be fixed,” said a note from Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson.

“We also expect Bob Iger to provide high level thoughts on Disney’s strategic positioning in streaming, current asset mix and potential levers to re-accelerate earnings growth,” added Rief Ehlrich.

Disney posted better-than-expected subscriber growth for Disney+ and its other streaming services in the company’s final quarterly report under Chapek in early November.

But that came at a cost of larger-than-expected losses of $1.5 billion for the quarter and $4 billion for the fiscal year that concluded October 1. Chapek said at the time that the streaming business was still on course to “achieve profitability in fiscal 2024, assuming we do not see a meaningful shift in the economic climate.”

Beyond the number of streaming subscribers Disney added in the period, investors will want to know how much money it lost, any change of target date for when it’ll finally be profitable, and how customers are responding to the new pricing options.

“Given a shift of attention from subscriber growth to profitability, most [streaming] services have moved into a price-raising mode,” wrote Doug Creutz, analyst for Cowen.

Reif Ehlrich said Disney will probably set new targets for both profitability and subscriber growth in Wednesday’s report and comments to investors.

The idea of Disney spinning off ESPN has been discussed for years – since early in Iger’s previous 15-year tenure as CEO.

The self-proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports is facing the same problems that competitors throughout the industry are dealing with: a steady, inexorable decline in cable subscribers. ESPN gets more fees, per cable customer, from cable operators than any other group of networks, making it particularly vulnerable to the loss of cable subscribers.

At the same time, competition for sports programming is rising as streaming services such as Amazon start competing for rights packages, sending the amount ESPN must pay for the continued rights fees climbing.

Various activist investors have proposed spinning off ESPN over the years, most recently by Third Point’s Dan Loeb last summer.

But Loeb soon backed off on that proposal and reached a truce with the Disney board. Another activist investor, Nelson Peltz, is moving ahead with a proxy fight in an effort to win a spot on the Disney board, although he is silent on ESPN in his proposal to trim costs at the company.

Disney on Monday scheduled a shareholder vote for April on board seats, and is actively opposing Peltz and his other proposals.

But there are problems with spinning off ESPN, even if it would raise cash and allow Disney to trim debt. Doing that today could be an example of selling low, when there is little appetite in the market for a stand-alone ESPN or an obvious buyer.

That’s why Rief Ehlrich said she doubts that Iger will comment on the proposal, even if it comes up Wednesday, unless it’s to dismiss the idea out of hand.

“I’d be really surprised if with everything else on his plate, that he starts to spin off a big part of the business at this time,” she said.

Unionized rank-and-file workers at Disney World last week voted 96% against a contract offer from Disney that would have given them raises of at least $1 a year over the next five years.

The company and a group of six unions representing 32,000 union member are due to return to the negotiating table, and no strike deadline has been set. The unions are demanding an immediate raise of $3 a hour for members – a 20% raise – with $1 a hour raises to follow in subsequent years.

The unions say that the current wages of about $15 an hour aren’t enough to live on in the Orlando area, even when working full time. The company called the rejected wage proposal a “very strong offer.”

But the last thing that Iger or Disney needs is to upset the strong demand for travel to Disney World or other park locations.

Disney reported that its parks, experiences and products unit, which includes Disney World and other park locations worldwide, had revenue of $7.4 billion and operating income of $1.5 billion in fiscal year 2022, which ran through October 1, even though the first six months of that fiscal year were affected by surging Covid cases.

Revenue was up 36% and profits more than doubled from the previous fiscal year. And both revenue and operating profits are above what the company posted in fiscal year 2019, before the pandemic, with a 12% rise in revenue and a 10% gain in earnings.

The political culture wars are yet another headache for Iger, as Disney faces the possible loss of the powers it has to operate as a government-like entity for the land on which Disney World operates.

It started last year when Florida passed the “Parental Rights in Education” law that put restrictions on classroom instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity. Opponents dubbed the bill the “Don’t Say Gay” law and a group of Disney employees urged the company to use its clout as the state’s largest employer to oppose the legislation. Iger himself, months from resuming the CEO office, joined in those calls.

Chapek initially tried to stay neutral on the legislation, then eventually joined those voicing opposition.

But after the bill passed, and Gov. Desantis and Republican supporters of the legislation took aim at Disney, passing a subsequent bill to dissolve the government-like entity, known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which Disney has controlled and used to exercise its government-like powers. That is due to take effect in June.

That legislation had its own problems, too, as towns and counties were afraid they could be left with about $1 billion in debt for which Reedy Creek had sold bonds to provide government services.

So this week the Florida legislature is in special session to pass a new Disney-related law that makes clear that the entity will remain on the hook for the $1 billion in debt. But the government-like entity, which will have its named changed from Reedy Creek to “Central Florida Tourism Oversight District,” will now be kept alive but controlled by a board appointed by the governor, not Disney.

“We are monitoring the progression of the draft legislation, which is complex given the long history of the Reedy Creek Improvement District,” said Jeff Vahle, president, Walt Disney World Resort. “Disney works under a number of different models and jurisdictions around the world, and regardless of the outcome, we remain committed to providing the highest quality experience for the millions of guests who visit each year.”

– CNN’s Steven Contorno contributed to this report