Could Steve Jobs really be on the threshold of becoming the most powerful name in family entertainment? Over the weekend, Barron's ran an article stipulating that Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL ) will make a play to acquire Disney (NYSE: DIS ) .
It would have seemed outlandish a few years ago, when former Disney CEO Michael Eisner was battling Apple's charismatic chieftain over Apple's "Rip, Mix, Burn" Apple marketing campaign. Eisner felt it promoted piracy at content creators' expense. That's all water under the burned bridge, now that new CEO Bob Iger has made nice with Jobs, paving the way for Disney's pending acquisition of Jobs-owned Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR ) .
Jobs' top post at both Apple and Pixar explains why this proposed pairing of Apple and Disney has more than a few of my Foolish friends scratching their heads and rubbing their chins.
"So lemme get this straight," Seth Jayson wrote me over the weekend. "I run company A and company B. I sell A to C. Then I try and buy C with B? No potential for sliminess there ..."
The ruthlessness of truthiness
I guess we shouldn't rush to judgment on this. All we have at this point is Mark Veverka's column in Barron's over the weekend, leaning on a stock analyst and an intellectual-property attorney to validate the notion that the pairing makes sense.
The rumor mill is looking at Jobs' impending 7% stake in Disney once the Pixar deal is completed. That will make him Disney's largest shareholder, but it doesn't mean he's got any interest in gobbling up Disney or shorting a fuse on Seth's Slime-o-Meter.
Would the three companies look good in a wedding portrait? You bet. Disney owns the content that Apple lacks. It owns the children that Apple lost when Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) took over the pole position in classrooms. And each company rightfully believes that the market will pay a premium for quality.
When I wrote a Jobs for Disney column two years ago, I wasn't the only one proposing that Jobs would be an ideal Disney helmsman. Roy Disney Jr. and others had been saying so for years.
A lot of that changed, though, when Iger stepped in for Eisner. He has proven to be the anti-Eisner, as he repairs frayed relationships and chooses to delegate authority over meddlesome micromanaging. The market underestimated Iger. We all figured that Disney was simply settling when it chose to promote Iger internally instead of considering outside candidates like Mel Karmazin and eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY ) Meg Whitman. The simple truth is that, until proven otherwise, an imperfect company like Disney chose the perfect successor in Iger.
Don't believe the iHype
Disney hooking up with Pixar made perfect sense. Disney hooking up with Apple would be an unmitigated disaster. Don't believe me? Let's look under the hood.
The iPod has been a lifesaver for Apple. You don't sell 42 million iPods -- and more than a billion digital downloads -- and not reshape the realm of content distribution. But isn't that the best reason to remain content-agnostic? If Apple began favoring ABC, ESPN, and Disney Channel content at its iTunes video store, how would that impact the other eyeball-fishers? It may seem that way now, since Disney was the first major media company to lend its support to the video-enabled iPod, but it wouldn't work out in the long run.
Apple needs to keep its relationships strong. That's best accomplished by not taking sides. Even though an easy argument can be made that the content providers need Apple more than Apple needs them, you just don't want to foster that kind of nepotistic environment. Jobs will sit on Disney's board after the Pixar deal is complete -- that's true -- but it doesn't tug on the financial heartstrings the way corporate ownership would.
The hardest job in the 1990s had to be selling PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP ) fountain sales to fast-food chains. Knock on any door, and they would wonder why they should enrich the competition by pouring money into Pepsi's coffers to help grow Pepsi-owned Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC. It's probably why Pepsi was quick to spin off its eatery business. You can't serve one master and expect a handout from another.
Jobs has been great for Apple. He would be a compelling fit at Disney. I just don't think that even a multitasking genius like Jobs would be able to pull off the mother of all juggling acts to run both companies as thoroughly as he'd probably like. And as beloved as Jobs may be right now -- and deservedly so -- I get the feeling that there is no way that Apple and Disney shareholders would see eye-to-eye on making this kind of deal work at any price.
Does Disney need to double in size for the sake of computing and consumer electronics? No. Does Apple need to shackle itself down to a single content provider? No. The trade-off between the synergies and the pitfalls just isn't worth the exploration process.
Apple won't eat Disney. Disney got what it wanted from Jobs when it got him to approve the sale of Pixar. Disney will be complete after that. Apple, in turn, is getting what it wants by receiving Disney's backing as a content provider in this promising age of digital distribution. Apple only needs consensual support to be complete as a media distributor.
Pixar was a pawn in all this, perfectly played by both companies. Since it's a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation, this latest wave of speculation may have implications for the newsletter service's subscribers. Once Pixar's shares are exchanged for Disney stock later this year, Disney would become an active newsletter pick. It's what happened when eBay acquired PayPal, after David Gardner had recommended PayPal to newsletter readers nearly four years ago.
David doesn't have to keep the coupled company, of course. One of the great things about a newsletter service is that recommendations are tracked actively and disposed of when either the valuations or fundamentals come undone. I don't think that David will mind taking on Disney when Pixar no longer trades. On paper, I think he wouldn't mind having Apple Computer on board, either. But folks, no matter how much you wish upon a star, it just won't come to that. And if you buy into the possibility that it will, you might end up skipping the ripping and mixing, and go straight to getting burned.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is still a kid at heart, smitten over the right kind of animation. He owns shares in Disney and Pixar.Dell is also aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick.The Fool has adisclosure policy. Rick is also part of theRule Breakersnewsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.