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Disney’s Kevin Mayer Stays Mum on Taking Top Job at ESPN

If top Disney exec Kevin Mayer is in the running for the top job at ESPN, he’s not going to admit it.

When asked Tuesday at the Code Media event whether he could be named to the open post, the company’s executive VP/chief strategy officer deflected the question–nor did he deny it.

“Running ESPN is great, but I’ll do what [Disney CEO] Bob [Iger] asks me to do,” he said. “Happily.”

As a trusted longtime lieutenant to Iger, Mayer has been the subject of widespread speculation that he could be tapped to replace John Skipper, who stepped down from the presidency at ESPN last year, citing an unspecified substance abuse problem. Another well-known media executive, CNN president Jeff Zucker, emerged as a potential candidate recently but he made clear he’s not throwing his hat into that ring.

The non-denial was just a small part of a broader conversation on what’s going on at Disney, including the decision to  move its movies from Netflix to its own direct-to-consumer service next year. Mayer said that the goal wasn’t to undermine the online video juggernaut. “We are not trying to hurt or kill Netflix,” he said.

“They are not the reason we are doing this,” Mayer added. “I’m a big fan of Netflix. I have nothing but admiration for them.”

Mayer instead painted Disney’s move to direct-to-consumer businesses as a way to own the relationship with the customer. “There is a confluence of opportunity,” he said, adding that having access to Disney’s brands would help to kickstart the service. “You have to earn your way to a direct-to-consumer relationship.”

Disney will ultimately use a three-pronged approach for its direct-to-consumer businesses, Mayer said. Sports fans will be served by ESPN Plus, the $5 subscription service that the company will launch in early spring.

The second–Disney’s own branded paid service–will be the destination for family-friendly fare when it launches by late 2019,. And Hulu, which may be majority-owned by Disney if the company’s acquisition of Fox goes through, will be what he called a “general entertainment destination” for content from Disney-owned TV networks.

Mayer didn’t seem too concerned about Hulu’s recent losses, and instead characterized them as investments into the service’s future.  “We are very much in support of growing Hulu,” he said, adding that Hulu could ultimately be grown to become a big and profitable service.

Asked about other acquisitions, Mayer said that Disney had evaluated multiple ways to build its direct-to-consumer business. One of the approaches the company was looking into was becoming an aggregator for online video from a variety of sources, which is why it at one point considered acquiring Twitter. “We decided ultimately not to pull the trigger,” he said, explaining that the company instead made the call to stick with its own content.

That’s why Disney instead did pull the trigger on acquiring the remaining assets of BAMTech, the video tech company that is now building Disney’s subscription services. Some argued that Disney overpaid for BAMTech, which is valued$3.75 billion, but Mayer shrugged off those concerns.

“With every new deal, there is naysayers,” he said. “We think boldly.”

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