In regards to its outlook, The Walt Disney Company (DIS -1.50%) is quickly becoming a bifurcated company. On one hand, the company's Studio Entertainment division is firing on all cylinders in wake of the company's first installment of the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Recently, the movie pushed past Avatar as the No. 1 domestic grossing movie of all time, with $816 million in domestic box-office dollars as of this writing ($1.8 billion total), and has received a favorable reception in the key market of China by pulling in $53 million of box-office gross within the first two days of opening.
The problem for investors is the well-known studio entertainment, and parks and resorts divisions together are barely larger than the company's largest division -- media networks -- as it relates to revenue, and even less so when looking at segment operating income. When it comes to Disney's largest division, the news has been decidedly less sanguine than its studio entertainment division. Many analysts are questioning the division's business model as its prime channel, ESPN, is under pressure from higher content costs amid falling subscriber numbers.
More recently, a survey from research firm Civic Science (h/t Fierce Cable), and reported by BTIG Research analyst Richard Greenfield, continues to cast doubt on the company's ESPN franchise. Overall, 56% of all pay-TV respondents said they'd ditch ESPN in order to save $8 monthly from their pay-TV bill. Should Disney investors be concerned?
Unbundling could hurt ESPN
While many have written about the potential for cord-cutting and cord-slimming to hurt ESPN, it's been mostly a hypothetical up until this point. Last year, the company's Media Networks revenue increased 10% on a year-on-year basis from 2014's haul, growing even faster than Disney's overall revenue growth figure of 7.5%.
The majority of this growth was an increase in affiliate fee revenue (read: share of cable bills), which now total the aforementioned $8 per month for ESPN and ESPN 2, according to estimates from research firm SNL Kagan. ESPN alone is now estimated to cost more than $7 monthly itself versus the second-most expensive cable channel, Time Warner's (TWX) TNT, which costs less than $2 monthly.
Furthermore, the survey states that only 6% of respondents would pay $20 monthly to keep the ESPN platform. For Disney investors, this is an important question on two fronts: First, this gauges the potential for ESPN to make a direct-to-consumer offering like an over-the-top streaming offering. In addition, in the event the company does face a wide-scale, 56% defection rate amid cord-cutters or cord-slimmers, the company would have to increase its affiliate fees to nearly $20 monthly to monetize at the same clip.
The survey is interesting, but perhaps not actionable
To be fair to Disney, this is a rather small sample size of 1,582 respondents, possibly overstating the desire among the entire pay-TV population to part ways with ESPN. Additionally, it's much simpler to answer an abstract question in a survey than it is to go to the hassle of trying to find available cable packages that don't offer ESPN while still offering the channels the viewer does want to watch.
With that in mind, I'm not sure there's any actionable takeaways from this survey. Disney investors should continue to look at its media networks division with a keen eye. If subscriber losses accelerate, it could be hard for its movie studio or theme parks to pick up the slack on a consistent basis.