Is The Walt Disney Company Returning to Its Roots?

With its media networks unit slowing, is Disney's latest move the right one?

Aug 8, 2014 at 6:09PM

Disney's (NYSE:DIS) recently reported fiscal third quarter gave investors reason to rejoice. While the record-setting results -- earnings per share of $1.28 and revenue of $12.5 billion -- have been much talked about, what's been talked about less is Disney's overall transformation. Could Disney be returning to its movie studio roots, sans its historical Mickey Mouse character?

Although most people identify Disney by Mickey Mouse, its theme parks, or its films, the company's recent economic engine has been its media networks empire -- more specifically, ESPN. ESPN and ESPN2 command nearly $6 combined per month in cable affiliate fees. For perspective, the average basic cable channel pulls in $0.26 of affiliate fees monthly. Since the average cable bill is $90 per month, approximately 6.5% of your monthly payment goes to ESPN, with 80% of that going to majority owner Disney.

Wunderlich Securities recently assigned a stand-alone valuation of $51 billion to ESPN, good for nearly 28% of Disney's total value. As the chart below shows, over the last four fiscal quarters the media networks business -- which also includes the ABC and A&E family of channels, along with local TV and radio stations and other distribution networks -- continued to provide the lion's share of company revenue.

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Source: Walt Disney 10-Qs. Y axis denotes percentage growth on right and revenue per period on left. Numbers in thousands.

However, growth is slowing in the division, with revenue growth up only 2.9% in the last four quarters from the four proceeding.  ESPN is admirably battling two revenue headwinds: the so-called "cord-cutting" trend in which many households are dropping cable in favor of streaming services, along with poor performance from other Disney-owned networks such as ABC and ABC Family.

Captain America (and studio entertainment) to the rescue
However, over the past four quarters Disney has had a true star performer in its studio entertainment segment. Reporting an astonishing 19.25% revenue jump in the last four quarters over the four prior, and led by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Frozen, the segment's revenue growth provided 30.4% of Disney's total revenue growth during this period. When it comes to operating profit, the numbers look even better:

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Source: Walt Disney 10-Qs. Y axis denotes percentage growth on right and revenue per period on left. Numbers in thousands.

As you can see, the media networks segment is driving Disney's operating income, but studio entertainment is responsible for its growth over the last four quarters -- providing 36% of Disney's total operating income growth. Even better, studio entertainment looks extremely scalable, turning 19.25% revenue growth into 121% operating profit growth over the last four reporting periods.

But where's Mickey?
Lost in all this is poor Mickey Mouse. And in a way, that's ironic considering that early Disney studio entertainment success was based upon the diminutive mammal. However, following the huge success of its purchase of Pixar in 2006, Disney went on an acquisition spree for content by buying Marvel in late 2009 and adding Lucasfilm in 2012.

The combination of the Marvel Universe and the upcoming Star Wars movies will continue to pay dividends for the studio for years to come. On an inflation-adjusted basis, the Star Wars trilogies and the Marvel Universe respectively are the second- and fourth-highest grossing movie franchises worldwide; both trail James Bond, and Harry Potter splits the two.

Final thoughts
Disney has had a great trailing 12 months, growing revenue by 8.4%, thanks to its studio entertainment division. With growth from its media networks division slowing, Disney studio entertainment is where investors should look for future growth. And as for Mickey, he continues to add value at Disney's parks and consumer products divisions, so he still has a room at the "House of Mouse."

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Jamal Carnette has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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