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Despite Multiple Coronavirus Headwinds, Here's How Disney Can Still Be Profitable

By Jeremy Bowman - Updated Mar 13, 2020 at 3:17PM

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Disney's strength in home entertainment gives it a ballast that few other travel-related companies have.

It's a tough time for Walt Disney (DIS 1.84%).

The world's largest entertainment company has been forced to shut its six theme parks around the world and its cruise line as the coronavirus pandemic deals a devastating blow to its parks and resorts business. Not only that, but movie theaters are losing audience members, as some studios have even delayed releases until the fall. Disney has also put the production of some new movies on hold for now. In sports, ESPN, the crown jewel of Disney's cable empire, will lose valuable programming, as the NBA has suspended its season indefinitely, the NCAA March Madness tournament has been canceled, and the start of the baseball season has been delayed by two weeks, among other cancellations in the sports world.

Disney has promised to continue paying employees as the parks go dark, but it will no doubt take a financial hit from the pandemic. However, the company is more stable than you may think, and it has other ways of making money besides its theme parks, resorts, and box office releases. 

The Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World

Image source: Disney.

The perks of being diversified

Though Disney may be best known for its theme parks and trademark movies like Frozen, the company's most profitable segment is actually its media networks, which include ABC, the Disney Channel, and the cable networks FX and National Geographic that came along with its Fox acquisition, in addition to the ESPN family of networks. The affiliate fees that Disney recoups from cable and satellite operators are going to keep rolling in during the crisis, even for ESPN, the highest-valued cable channel. And with people spending more time at home, Disney's TV-related businesses will likely grow more valuable. Its ad sales are tied to ratings, which should also go up as people spend more time at home, though ESPN viewership is likely to decline.

Last year, Disney's media networks segment (which also includes programming and licensing fees to cable networks and streaming services) generated $7.5 billion in operating income, about half of the company's total of $14.9 billion, though that includes a $1.8 billion loss in its direct-to-consumer segment and $241 million in eliminations, or overlaps between segments.

Operating profits and revenue from its media networks should also increase this year, as the company will benefit from a full year of owning the Fox properties, including the international network Star.

The Disney+ logo

Image source: Disney.

Another card up its sleeve

Traditional cable and broadcast TV aren't Disney's only ways to keep you entertained at home. The company became the majority owner of Hulu with the acquisition of Fox, and, more importantly, launched Disney+ last year. The popular streaming service, which includes content from Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and National Geographic, in addition to Disney classics, debuted in the U.S. last November and had already racked up nearly 30 million subscribers by early February, putting the company nearly halfway to the bottom end of its 2024 forecast range of 60 million-90 million global subscribers.

Disney+ is set to launch in Europe on March 24, essentially doubling the number of people with access to the service. Though the company was forced to cancel a launch event due to the novel coronavirus outbreak and a pandemic may be an odd time to debut, the service could be in high demand among people stuck at home or dealing with stress from the pandemic, as it will provide a needed escape -- and a way to entertain children who are not in school right now. Subscriptions to Disney+ and Hulu could also ramp up in the U.S. for similar reasons.

Disney will be fine

The shockwave starting to hit the U.S. economy is only just beginning. With its exposure to the travel and tourism industry, Disney is one of the first victims, but there will be many more -- and most other companies don't also own home entertainment businesses that could actually see demand grow during a global pandemic.

Disney is a nearly-century-old company with a portfolio of enduring brands, a highly profitable flywheel business model, and a brand reputation that most companies dream of. The coronavirus pandemic will certainly be a setback to the company as its parks close for at least a few weeks and travel and tourism come to a halt, but Disney isn't at risk the way a stand-alone cruise line or hotel chain would be. Its strength in television should help keep the business steady and profitable during these uncertain times. With the recent sell-off, the stock is even likely to pay off for long-term investors. 

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