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3 Things Disney Wants You to Know

By Demitri Kalogeropoulos - Feb 12, 2018 at 8:31AM

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The entertainment giant talks about its upcoming merger with 21st Century Fox, its hopes for the new ESPN app, and its booming parks and resorts business.

Disney (DIS -0.71%) is a diverse entertainment business that, almost like clockwork, sets operating records year after year. But that steady growth is at risk right now as the company navigates big changes -- some voluntary, some not -- that affect every piece of its media empire.

Against that unstable backdrop, CEO Bob Iger held a conference call with Wall Street analysts to discuss how these shifts are influencing the business as it kicks off fiscal 2018. Here are a few highlights from that presentation.

We're working hard on the ESPN app

This spring we [will] unveil a completely reconceived and redesigned ESPN app, which will deliver important new services and experiences to users. The changes will be dramatic, with more compelling visuals as well as an easy, intuitive interface and exceptional video and sound quality. -- CEO Bob Iger

You only get one chance to make a first impression. And that's why Disney is hoping to wow sports fans this spring by stuffing its new ESPN subscription service with tons of content and a data platform that provides countless scores and highlights -- all wrapped up in a fast, personalized browsing experience.

A sports fan watches a soccer match from his couch.

Image source: Getty Images.

If that sounds like a tall order, it is. But Disney is hoping that its deep portfolio of sporting rights, plus the technical expertise it acquired by purchasing BAMTech, will help it succeed where other media companies failed. Its small $4.99 monthly fee, meanwhile, might set the bar low enough that Disney can outperform subscribers' expectations and quickly build a big user base, just as Netflix did in its early streaming days.

Stressing parks over television

Parks and Resorts delivered another strong quarter of financial performance. operating income increased 21% due to growth at our domestic operations [and] in Disneyland Paris. -- Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy

Disney's parks segment has become more important to the broader business lately. It was responsible for just 20% of overall earnings in both fiscal 2015 and 2016, but, as the division grew, and as the media segment retreated, that rate shot up to 26% in 2017.

A look at a Disney castle.

Image source: Getty Images.

Strong demand across Disney's parks this quarter created a rare situation in which that segment contributed more toward earnings than the media division did. Sure, the shift was exaggerated by a few temporary issues like a production writedown charge that hurt the broadcasting business. Yet the there's no denying that Disney is transitioning into more of an in-person entertainment provider than a home entertainment specialist.

The Fox merger is exciting, but risky

I'm even more enthusiastic about the businesses we're acquiring and the management teams that are leading them. -- Iger

Disney executives say they're as optimistic as ever about the prospective merger with 21st Century Fox (FOX). There are many significant opportunities for creating value from the move. Combining the two giants' movie studios will likely put Disney at the top of annual box office receipts for the foreseeable future. It will gather more talent and content production capabilities under one umbrella than any other company can claim, too. A Fox purchase also adds valuable geographic diversification to Disney's business.

A lot can go wrong with a $50 billion acquisition, though. Mergers like this are complicated and can take years before they're completed, with lots of unpleasant surprises along the way. And by the time investors can fully evaluate the buyout, industry dynamics might have shifted in ways that make the deal less attractive than originally thought.

These risks help explain why executives are extremely cautious about making a risky move like this. Iger admitted as much when an analyst asked him about any plans to make additional acquisitions, given Disney's healthy cash flow. "I think you can check that box off for a while," he said, "I don't think we're gonna be in the market looking to acquire for quite a long period of time."

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