Disney chairman-CEO Bob Iger revealed the moniker and a few fresh details about plans for Disney+ as well as the fate of Hulu and his vision for Disney’s enlarged TV operation during a conference call Thursday afternoon with Wall Street analysts. The media giant, which is awaiting the completion of its $71.3 billion acquisition of key 21st Century Fox assets, reported strong fiscal fourth quarter earnings.
Iger said the company is on track to launch Disney+ in late 2019. Iger told the Wall Streeters the company will host an investor presentation in April to offer more details and a “first look” at the service. Disney on Thursday also launched a placeholder website to collect email addresses for prospective subscribers.
The Disney+ branding is in keeping with the format established by the ESPN+ service that bowed earlier this year. Iger said ESPN+ has more than 1 million subscribers so far. The growth of ESPN’s foray into the streaming world “bodes very well” for Disney’s overall global streaming strategy, he said.
At the same time, the launch of ESPN+ has required significant investment. Disney CFO Christine McCarthy told analysts that the investment in the ESPN streaming offshoot will “have an adverse impact on operating income of about $100 million for the first quarter.”
Disney+ will focus on content rooted in the company’s most formidable brands: Disney, Pixar, Marvel, “Star Wars,” and National Geographic, the latter of which will join the Disney fold through its pending acquisition of 21st Century Fox. The service will offer subscribers “unprecedented access” to Disney’s library of film and TV fare, Iger said.
Disney’s production arms are revving up production of original content to stock up Disney+, including a new “Rogue One”-related series toplined by Diego Luna and a docu-series that he described as an “unprecedented look” at the inner workings of Walt Disney Imagineering.
“There’s activity across the board at our company in terms of increased production and investment for this app,” Iger said. “We think we’re in great shape. We have a game plan in place to bring the product to market.”
Iger also briefly addressed Disney’s plans for Hulu, the streaming service that will be 60% controlled by Disney after the Fox acquisition is complete. Hulu will remain focused on general entertainment fare while Disney+ is laser-focused on family-friendly material. Iger said Disney intends to invest in Hulu and expand the service internationally just as it plans to make Disney+ a global service.
Iger was pressed about the role of Hulu’s other shareholders — Comcast and AT&T — but he made no mention of whether Disney will look to buy out the remaining 40% of Hulu. Iger said Disney executives intend to meet with the other shareholders after the Fox deal is completed to discuss the long-term plan for investing in Hulu.
“Anything we do with Hulu will be done with an eye toward being fiscally responsible to the other shareholders even though they are minority shareholders,” Iger said.
Iger was pressed by analysts on how Disney will balance investment in the new streaming services with its traditional endeavors in content production and distribution via linear platforms such as ABC, Disney Channel, and Freeform. He cited the strength of the assets that Disney is acquiring from Fox as well as the new management team that will oversee the enlarged group of networks and studios, namely Fox’s Peter Rice, Dana Walden, and John Landgraf.
“If we create the television studio we aim to create, we’re going to have an engine at the company coming from different entities. We’ll be able to supply Hulu with a lot of high-quality content — more than they currently have,” Iger said. He added that the challenge facing the new regime is to “create a television business designed to service the present as well as the future of the combined entity.”
But for all the emphasis on Disney’s deep dive into streaming — as it looks to take on Netflix and others in the global content marketplace — Iger made it clear that Disney is not abandoning its established linear-focused TV operations.
“We don’t intend to get out of those businesses or de-prioritize them or sacrifice them,” Iger said. “We’re also realists. We see what’s going on in the marketplace. We see the growth of new platforms and program consumption versus channel consumption.”
Iger stressed that it’s too early to tell how much the focus of its TV efforts will shift in the near term.
“If we see opportunities growing more and more to move programming over to direct-to-consumer platforms, we’ll do that. We can’t right now estimate in any way if that will happen,” he said. “We’re going to be nimble, as we’ve already evidenced by just the fact that we’re going into direct-to-consumer as aggressively as we’re going into it.”
Iger was also asked about the impact of losing Sky, the European satellite operator, to a higher bid from Comcast. Disney had intended to acquire Sky as part of its Fox acquisition, but in September Comcast prevailed in a bidding war for the publicly traded satcaster, in which Fox owned a 39% stake.
“We would have loved to have had Sky,” Iger said. “We believe in the asset and thought it could have helped us in introducing our direct-to-consumer service in the European market. But only at a price that makes sense for us.”