When Disney+ launched one year ago today, the name hinted at a potential shortcoming: “Plus” implied that the streaming app was merely an appendage to something more prominent.
There was core Disney, tried and true, and then tucked into an obscure division called “Direct-to-Consumer and International” — the last rung of its income statement — was the cash-burning Disney+.
Covid-19 changed all that. As the pandemic continues to bludgeon Walt Disney Co., what were formerly its most important businesses — theme parks, cruises, theatrical films, cable networks — have moved to the other side of that plus sign. Now, the company can be thought of as Disney, a streaming giant, plus some other stuff.
For the fiscal year that ended Oct. 3, Disney took a $7.4 billion profit hit from the virus, mostly in its theme parks, cruises and consumer products unit, according to its financial results released late Thursday. The company went from earning more than $700 million in last year’s fourth quarter to losing more than $700 million in the latest period. Disney’s parks that are open, such as Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, are operating at reduced capacity, while Disneyland in California is still shuttered. Disney also halted its cruises through at least the end of the year, which isn’t such a bad idea considering that another cruise line had to call a ship back to port Thursday because a number of passengers tested positive for Covid-19. It was the first cruise to sail the Caribbean since the industry shutdown, and it doesn’t bode well. Meanwhile, that’s an entire business not in operation for Disney.
Elsewhere, the company has postponed movie releases until more theaters are open and more patrons feel comfortable venturing to them. According to the latest Morning Consult poll, only 28% of millennials feel comfortable going to the movies, and 40% of all adults surveyed said it’d be more than six months before they’d return to an amusement park. It’s also entirely unclear what becomes of live sports programming and Disney’s ESPN network, even after a Covid vaccine is widely available; ESPN is in the midst of cutting 300 jobs.
Despite all of this, shares of Disney popped 1.5% in after-hours trading. Why? Because all investors seem to care about these days is Disney+, which now has more than 73 million paid subscribers. That’s a significant jump from the 57.5 million it reported last quarter and an impressive achievement for a service that launched only a year ago.
The key to Disney getting through the pandemic is streaming — talking about streaming, advertising streaming, introducing lots of streaming content. Its executives really just need to say the word streaming as much as possible. And that’s not just to distract shareholders. Disney internally and externally needs to identify as a streaming company if it stands a chance of catching up to Netflix Inc., which had 195 million subscribers as of September.
Disney+ is still quite a ways behind Netflix, but that gap is about to get much narrower. Disney CEO Bob Chapek, who replaced Bob Iger in February, recently announced a reorganization that will give a much-needed boost to the streaming side. Instead of having content silos — in which the cable networks only make shows for traditional television and the film business is dedicated to theaters — there is now a General Entertainment Content group. It will supply the content, while the new Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution group will help figure out the best spot to put that content. And the best spot is often going to be Disney+ until a vaccine is widely available. That will mean sacrificing profits in Disney’s traditional businesses, but the payoff will come in having a much wider reach and more loyal audience at a pivotal moment.
Netflix just raised prices in the U.S., and while it’s been alone in sustaining viewers throughout the pandemic, competition will heat up next year. Right now, Disney+ is more of a cut-rate Netflix, with less content and a lower price. But if Disney+ fills out its library, it could lure away some bored Netflix users or those looking to save money. Putting more movies that are meant for theaters directly onto Disney+, as it did with “Mulan,” would be a smart move in the meantime.
In April 2019, when Disney (DIS) first showcased Disney+ to investors, I wondered: “When and how will Disney+ someday be just Disney?” Those two words are synonymous now, it just happened in a way that no one could have predicted.
Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of entertainment and telecommunications, as well as broader deals. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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