Streaming Red: Disney’s OTT Venture Down a Fiscal Black Hole

NEWS ANALYSIS — Disney bought Marvel Studios in 2009 for $4 billion. It bought Lucasfilm (“Star Wars”) for another $4 billion three years later.

The acquisitions helped Disney reign supreme at the box office in 2018, 2017 and 2016, according to data from BoxOfficeMojo. And it has a commanding lead in 2019 thanks to Avengers: Endgame.

At the same time, the Mickey Mouse company is set to lose more than $2 billion on streaming investments — “Disney Streaming Services” (formerly BAMTech), Vice Media, ESPN+ and Hulu — before it even launches its much-ballyhooed new $6.99 monthly SVOD service Disney+ in November.

Earlier this year, Disney CFO Christine McCarthy said ESPN+ is projected to lose $650 million annually through 2020. The company just wrote-off more than $300 million on its minority stake in Vice Media.

And the much-hyped Disney+ SVOD platform is not projected to become profitable until 2024 — three years after CEO Bob Iger plans to retire.

“Streaming requires a strong stomach for losses, especially as you are playing catch-up,” Rich Greenfield, analyst at BTIG Research, told CNBC earlier this year.

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Down the OTT Rabbit Hole

As Disney saw Netflix growing exponentially worldwide — much of it based on streaming movies and TV series based on Marvel intellectual property, it switched its business focus from SVOD enabler to over-the-top provider.

Indeed, Iger says OTT video is the company’s No. 1 focus in 2019, regardless of the financial hits to the bottom line.

Hulu, which Disney majority owns along with Comcast, lost $580 million in 2018, while BAMTech, the backend tech firm acquired from Major League Baseball Advanced Media in 2017, spearheaded another $470 million operating loss for the company’s new direct-to-consumer and international operating unit (which also includes home entertainment).

And the fiscal hits continue.

DTC & International lost $393 million in the most-recent fiscal quarter (ended March 31), up from $188 million loss in the previous-year period. Through the first half of the fiscal year, DTC has lost $529 million, twice as much was lost in 2018.

“We expect our direct-to-consumer businesses to have an adverse impact on the year-over-year change in segment operating income,” McCarthy said in an understatement on the May 8 fiscal call.

Disney, of course, can arguably absorb the losses. It generated a $12.5 billion profit on almost $60 billion in revenue in 2018. That was before closing the 21st Century Fox transaction, which could help Disney reach $100 billion in revenue.

At the same time, the Fox acquisition upped Disney’s long-term debt from $18 billion to about $52 billion. Disney is also expecting about $2 billion of cost synergies absorbing 20th Century Fox Film Corp. and related businesses.

Thus far, Wall Street appears supportive, contending the Disney brand has the best chance of narrowing the SVOD divide with Netflix.

“I think Wall Street is at least accepting of the fact that we’re doing this, that it’s the most important thing we’re doing,” Iger told Barron’s in January. “And while I won’t say they’re cheering us on, they’re definitely giving us the room to prove that we can do it.”

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