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3 Positives from Disney's Disappointing Streaming Results

By Adam Levy - May 18, 2021 at 9:53AM

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Long-term investors shouldn't fret at Disney+'s subscriber growth slowdown.

Walt Disney (DIS -2.06%) ended its second quarter with fewer than 104 million Disney+ subscribers. Wall Street was looking for about 109 million. With the streaming service at the center of Disney's biggest growth engine -- its direct-to-consumer business -- investors sent shares lower following the earnings release.

But management reaffirmed its long-term guidance for Disney+ subscriber growth, and long-term investors still have a few positives they can take away from last quarter's results. Here are three to take note of.

1. Hulu and ESPN+ crushed it

While Disney+ disappointed, the media company's smaller streaming services produced some solid results.

Disney+ logo.

Image source: Walt Disney.

Hulu ended the second quarter with 41.6 million subscribers, up 2.2 million from the end of the first quarter. While Hulu + Live TV subscribers fell for the second quarter in a row, that may be due to its December price increase and typical seasonality. Importantly, average revenue per user was roughly flat for the SVOD-only business, indicating strength in the recovery of the ad business from COVID-19.

During the second-quarter earnings call, CFO Christine McCarthy told analysts: "The most important driver for Hulu is the addressable advertising strength. That continues to be a real upside, and it's going strong, and we expect that to continue."

ESPN+ added 1.7 million subscribers to reach 13.8 million total. Average revenue per user continued to tick up sequentially, despite the seasonally strong advertising sales from the previous quarter. Management also said its UFC pay-per-view events garnered strong viewership, adding additional revenue.

Overall, the strength at Hulu and ESPN+ pushed Disney to reduce its operating losses for the direct-to-consumer business by more than $175 million sequential and $500 million year over year.

2. Disney+ subscriber growth is already picking back up

While Disney+ subscriber growth disappointed for the quarter, it's already showing signs of picking back up. The company had 94.9 million subscribers at the start of January. Its 100-million-subscriber announcement came at its investor meeting on March 10, so it added roughly 2.5 million subscribers per month in January and February. It ended the quarter three weeks later, adding another 3.9 million subscribers.

McCarthy confirmed the increased subscriber growth in March during the earnings call. "We added subs at a faster pace in the last month of the second quarter than we did in the first two months," she said. "And that was despite no major market launches, a price increase in EMEA [Europe Middle East and Africa], and a domestic price increase toward the end of the quarter," she added.

As Disney's content production ramps up, particularly with originals for Star and Disney+ in Europe, it should see strong net additions in the EMEA region. However, McCarthy warned that canceled IPL Cricket matches could affect the growth of Disney+ Hotstar in India, which currently accounts for one-third of all subscribers.

3. Churn is not an issue

It appears the challenge for subscriber growth during Disney's second quarter stems primarily from adding new consumers to the top of the funnel. Subscribers canceling their service has not been an issue for the company.

CEO Bob Chapek said the price increase for Disney+ in the U.S. in March has not created significantly higher churn rates. Meanwhile, it's seen churn rates improve in Europe, Middle East, and Africa markets with the addition of Star content to the subscription (and a two-euro-per-month price increase).

Chapek noted improved engagement and strong viewership for the media company's original series throughout the call. "Engagement is sort of the precursor for net sub adds," he said.

Disney+'s subscriber growth slowdown appears to be largely due to a pull forward in subscribers from the pandemic. Netflix faced a similar problem with its first-quarter subscriber growth results, where it also noted lower subscriber churn. With the pickup in subscriber growth seen in March and Hulu and ESPN+ doing good work to pick up the slack, Disney's direct-to-consumer business looks just as strong as ever.

Adam Levy owns shares of Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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