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Disney's Direct-to-Consumer Investment Is Just Getting Started

By Adam Levy - Nov 13, 2018 at 9:01AM

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CEO Bob Iger discussed his plans to invest in Disney's streaming services.

One of the big focuses of Disney's ( DIS -0.67% ) fourth-quarter earnings call was its expanding interest in the direct-to-consumer streaming video market. CEO Bob Iger revealed more details about the forthcoming Disney-branded service it's now officially calling Disney+. He also talked about the company's plans for Hulu, which Disney will take majority control over when it closes its acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox ( FOXA ), and touched on the progress of ESPN+.

While Disney plans to give a full overview of its streaming service plans at its investor day in April, Iger gave plenty of details during the call. The short story is that he plans to continue investing heavily in the services.

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale on television, tablet, and smartphone.

Image source: Hulu.

Tons of original content for Disney+

Disney+ is going to feature a slate of original content that appeals to multiple demographics.

The company already announced plans for a live-action Star Wars series directed by Jon Favreau. It also has a High School Musical series, a Monsters, Inc. series, and two Marvel universe series in the works.

Iger also outlined various other programming the company plans to launch exclusively on Disney+, including new documentary series, Disney original films, another live-action Star Wars series, and moving the animated Clone Wars series to Disney+. The company is paying up for big-name talent to direct and star in these productions.

Iger noted the content library of Disney+ at launch will be just the start. "We plan to continually elevate the experience and enhance the value to consumers with a constant pipeline of exclusive new content as we move forward," he told analysts.

Hulu could get more content, too

Hulu has seen excellent growth over the past couple years after it started investing heavily in original content and released its live TV service. Iger thinks the acquisition of Fox -- which gives it extra firepower in television and movie production, as well as a controlling stake in Hulu -- provides an opportunity to double down on that progress.

"We aim to use the television production capabilities of the combined company to fuel Hulu with a lot more original programming, original programs that we feel will enable Hulu to compete even more aggressively in the marketplace," he said.

Iger also thinks there's room to increase the pricing of Hulu's live TV product, which has over 1 million subscribers. Hulu's live TV service includes access to the on-demand product as well, and it's priced in line with other virtual pay-TV providers despite the added value.

Expanding to Europe

Another area of investment, at some point in the future, will be expanding both Disney+ and Hulu to Europe and other international markets. Hulu currently only operates in the United States and Japan (where it's owned and controlled by Nippon TV).

Expanding to Europe will require additional investments in marketing and technology as well as content. EU regulations require a certain percentage of local content on subscription video on demand services. Iger said the services will be tailored for the European market both in user experience and content.

The international market represents a massive opportunity for Disney, especially with its globally appealing brands like Star Wars, Marvel, and its animation studios. Netflix has rapidly grown its international presence to be larger than its U.S. presence. That said, the company isn't showing nearly as much profit on those subscribers because it's investing so much into growing via marketing and content acquisition. Disney's expansion of Disney+ and Hulu to Europe could see a similar impact on the services' profitability.

ESPN+ on a television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

Image source: ESPN.

Don't forget about ESPN+

One analyst asked Iger if the company would consider making ESPN+, its sports streaming service, an aggregator of content in the future. Currently ESPN+ only streams content owned by Disney.

"We think it will quickly get very complicated if we aggregated content that was really owned fully by other entities," he responded. "We think we have enough that right now we'll be able to continue to license more."

ESPN+ got off to a very strong start, garnering 1 million subscribers in just five months. Attracting a massive audience will require more mainstream sports rights, however, and could mean negotiating more expensive contracts with sports leagues and college sports conferences in order to include full streaming rights. For reference, ESPN already pays billions per year just for the rights to broadcast certain sports events; it still has to pay for their television production.

Iger is willing to forgo licensing revenue

While not a direct investment in its streaming services, Disney had been rumored to be in talks with distributors to amend its current licensing contracts in order to retain the streaming rights for its own streaming services. Iger confirmed during the earnings call that the company is having discussions with multiple partners.

In other words, Disney is willing to forgo the guaranteed high-margin revenue from licensing its content in order to give Disney+ and Hulu a better chance at attracting subscribers. The decreased revenue will hit Disney's books before the content has been on its direct-to-consumer services long enough to impact subscribers, so it's a net investment in the services as well.

Iger previously noted that the move to direct-to-consumer services will negatively impact licensing revenue as well as its near-term profitability. But with a long investment road map, Disney is just at the start of its journey as it starts its transition to a direct-to-consumer business.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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