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Does Disney Really Need the Cable Bundle?

By Adam Levy - Feb 18, 2016 at 8:30AM

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Bob Iger thinks its brands are strong enough to go it alone.

Source: Disney.

The big cable bundle's best days are behind it. Streaming video on demand services such as Netflix (NFLX -1.36%) and Hulu are providing tough competition to traditional television and causing people to cut the cord or never subscribe in the first place. Disney (DIS -1.38%) holds a big stake in the bundle, and it's seen big subscriber losses at its most valuable network, ESPN, over the past couple of years.

CEO Bob Iger told investors that he sees the company doing just fine without the cable bundle. "Many of our brands, including Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and ESPN, are tailor-made for over-the-top direct-to-consumer app-based video products," he said on the company's first quarter earnings call. "So expect innovation and continued pursuit of new distribution opportunities."

Irons in the fire
Disney isn't a complete stranger to "over-the-top direct-to-consumer" video products. It's a co-owner of Hulu, it licenses its Marvel intellectual property to Netflix while also co-developing exclusive originals, and it offers consumers in Europe and China access to DisneyLife -- a streaming service featuring Disney and Pixar films, music, and more. Outside of that, Disney also has a significant digital audience for non-video content.

ESPN, for example, has quite a broad digital audience. On its earnings call, Iger pointed out that ESPN has more than 200 million American adults engaging with ESPN in some form or another every month. The sports network also recently made a deal with Tencent (TCEHY -3.02%) to publish mandarin-language content, including video, on its QQ and Weixin (WeChat) platforms.

Last year, ESPN offered access to the Cricket World Cup via an over-the-top streaming video subscription. ESPN may look to offer similar subscriptions for content that doesn't fit into its regular programming schedule on ESPN or ESPN2.

Meanwhile, Marvel already offers a direct-to-consumer subscription product in the form of Marvel Unlimited. The $10 a month subscription offers access to Marvel's complete comic archive as well as new issues. Marvel Comics holds the rights to Star Wars, and relaunched Star Wars comics last year.

But Disney still needs the bundle
All those examples are to say Disney's brands already have lots of relationships with consumers online through digital platforms. Adding more video content to those platforms and attracting a substantial subscriber base is as easy as sending out an email or push notification.

But Disney can't risk alienating pay-TV operators or cable subscribers. As it goes about exploring new distribution opportunities for Disney and ESPN, it needs to keep in mind who butters its bread. The company's Media Networks segment accounted for 44% of total revenue last year. Even with the explosion of Star Wars at the box office last quarter, the segment still accounted for 42% of revenue.

Going over the top of cable operators would certainly provide more choice to consumers. But it risks alienating cable operators, who are already moving away from ESPN with skinny bundles. Providing an a la carte option gives operators one more excuse not to include the expensive network in their light packages -- if customers really want it, they can buy the streaming version.

Disney blamed skinny bundles for the subscriber losses ESPN experienced over the past couple of years. Since 2013, ESPN subscribers fell from 99 million to 92 million. Iger says he's in talks with traditional platforms to get ESPN into their light packages in an effort to stem losses.

A recent survey from BTIG found that if ESPN went over the top, it wouldn't do very well. Just 6% of respondents said they would pay $20 per month for an ESPN streaming service, even if it was the only way to subscribe to the network. Analysts estimate that ESPN would have to charge more than $30 based on its existing viewership to maintain its current revenue.

Streaming platforms represent an interesting opportunity for Disney. Adding access to movies for existing services such as Marvel Unlimited could provide some additional revenue for the company. But the bulk of its revenue comes from Media Networks, and it can't afford to ditch the bundle at this point.

Adam Levy has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix and Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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The Walt Disney Company Stock Quote
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