In the late 1970s, it's easy to say Disney (NYSE:DIS) was in a bit of disarray. It produced few films of note and was surviving on the latent strength of Disney World, which was one of the world's leading tourist destinations. When its top three animators left the studio in 1977, the entertainment giant had a sickly pallor.
That Disney was able to turn itself around is a testament to its management and forethought, so we asked three Motley Fool investors to come up with stocks that are akin to the entertainment giant in 1978. Read on to find out why Viacom (NASDAQ:VIA)(NASDAQ:VIAB), Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL), and Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) might just be like Disney was back then.
A struggling media giant
Leo Sun (Viacom): In the late 1970s, Disney's theme park attendance was waning, and its film studio's family-friendly movies fared poorly with mainstream audiences. It owned plenty of great brands, but couldn't expand them into sustainable franchises.
That sounds like today's Viacom, which tumbled 30% over the past 12 months on the inconsistent growth of its cable TV and film businesses. Viacom's cable networks -- which include MTV, BET, and Comedy Central -- are still posting sluggish ad revenue growth due to cord-cutters and weak ratings. Its attempts to win back advertisers with analytics and social-driven ad products still haven't turned things around.
Viacom's top Paramount film franchises -- like Transformers and Star Trek -- are still bringing in audiences, but they arguably lack the "expandable" appeal of Disney's Marvel and Star Wars universes. Wall Street expects Viacom's revenue and earnings to respectively rise 6% and 5% this year on easier annual comparisons, but concerns about its long-term growth remain.
Disney eventually broke out of its rut under Michael Eisner, who turned the company around in the mid-1980s and 1990s with big media acquisitions (ESPN, Capital Cities/ABC) and the production of blockbuster cartoon films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, which kick-started the "Disney Renaissance."
Like Eisner, Viacom's new CEO, Bob Bakish, who took over the top job last November, is focused on improving its core brands and expanding via acquisitions. If Bakish pulls off an Eisner-like come back, Viacom might just become the next Disney.
Will video kill the movie-studio star?
Dan Caplinger (Alphabet): One of the distinctive characteristics of Disney in 1978 is that the studio giant had already established a solid library of popular movies and had realized the potential of continuing to build out its content offerings. The ensuing decades brought an explosion of growth in movie, television, and digital content from Disney and the results have been extraordinary.
Alphabet finds itself in the same position as Disney with respect to online content. The search engine giant bought YouTube in 2006 for just $1.65 billion, and since then, the path for the video division has shot straight up. Now, more than 1.5 billion people use YouTube, and the typical user watches an average of an hour per day of video on mobile devices alone. Moves into traditional television viewership are also picking up steam, and Alphabet thinks it can replace the time that people spend watching TV with greater YouTube time.
Alphabet doesn't have a clear field toward television domination, with rivals in the social media and television network business seeking to stake their own claims in the fast-growing industry. But if the tech giant can achieve greater penetration among ordinary TV viewers, then the growth that Alphabet could capture would make Disney's rise since 1978 look small by comparison.
Content remains king
Rich Duprey (Netflix): A lot of credit for Disney's subsequent turnaround was the creation of Touchstone Pictures, a film studio that produced movies for a mature audience, rather than for kids.
Netflix is a somewhat similarly situated company. While it's not flagging nearly as badly as Disney had been, it wasn't all that long ago that many wondered whether the video streaming company's days were numbered. A series of seemingly misguided moves -- bifurcating its DVD and streaming business, renaming the streaming service Qwikster, and hiking prices -- had many analysts seeing it go the way of Blockbuster.
While those decisions actually turned out to be prescient (OK, even Netflix quickly backpedaled on Qwikster), the streaming service is on the precipice of what may become its grandest transformations yet: a true movie production studio. Yet it's also set to turn Hollywood on its head by not releasing its films into theaters, but instead streaming them directly onto its service. There was a time when Netflix was almost going door-to-door, hat in hand, trying to convince studios to release their movies on its service faster; now it has them quaking.
There are risks for Netflix, just as there were for Disney when it diverted from its kid-centric persona. But just as the House of Mouse was able to profit from a string of successful adult films like Splash, The Color of Money, Good Morning Vietnam, and Pretty Woman, Netflix has honed its content-creation chops on producing binge-worthy TV series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black.
And it tested its new model briefly in 2015 when it released its critically acclaimed Beasts of No Nation both in theaters and via streaming. Now it's promising to cut out the middleman altogether and put behind it, as Disney ultimately did, thoughts that it will end up being an entertainment afterthought.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Dan Caplinger owns shares of Walt Disney. Leo Sun owns shares of Walt Disney. Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.