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Disney Beats And Iger Speaks--To Me

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The Walt Disney Company reported another stellar quarter, with earnings of 58 cents per share, blowing away Wall Street's consensus earnings estimate of 51 cents per share, while revenue came in at $8.71 billion, also beating analyst expectations, and up 10 percent over last year.

Most impressive, CEO Bob Iger proved that the company,despite its exposure to the U.S. economy, is incredibly resilient.In Wednesday's trading, Disney stock is up on the news (at this positing).

Investors were concerned the slowdown in consumer spending could really hurt Disney's Parks and Resorts business. But the division came through with 11 percent revenue and 33 percent operating income growth. And even better, looking forward to the crucial summer season, room bookings haven't dropped off.

So how did the parks and resorts stay so strong? Well internationally, the weak dollar certainly helped, and Disneyland Paris finally started taking off. The U.S. parks also benefited from the weak dollar, which drove foreign tourists to stay at the parks and spend big. But what's most surprising is that U.S. visitors continued to spend at the parks, no matter how tight their pocketbooks.

I got a chance to sit down with Iger in an exclusive interview to discuss the numbers and his strategy. There are two video clips posted with him.

Iger attributed this to the parks shifting more of their hotels to a more moderate price-range, giving families the option of an affordable getaway. Lower priced rooms and the benefit of perks for staying at hotels on the park property has boosted Disney's share of tourists hotel spend. Bottom line: Americans may not be spending on travel overseas, but they're not giving up their annual family vacation, and Disneyland seems to offer a more accessible option here than ever.

Another sign of the company's resiliency in light of an economic slowdown--the company's media networks division showed a 5 percent increase in revenue and a 14 percent increase in operating income. Since Disney has the theme parks and consumer products, it's probably less exposed to the industry-wide downturn in advertising spending than any of the other media giants.

Iger noted that the company's ten local stations have been hurt by lower local ad spending, but with national spending still robust the segment remained stable. ABC sold some of its shows to international markets, which helped offset lower revenues due to the strike, leaving the broadcasting division flat. Meanwhile ESPN continues to be a growth driver, and the Disney Channel is strong as ever, both in the U.S. and overseas.

I talked to Iger about the company's strategy of using the Disney Channel as a launch pad for stars and brands to exploit across all its platforms.

They've done it with the "High School Musical" franchise and Hannah Montana, now they're doing it with the Jonas brothers. They started with a TV show on the Disney Channel, now they're starring in their own TV movie, "Camp Rock," which debuts this summer. Their albums are huge for Disney's label, Hollywood Records. And they're going on tour, having opened for Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana on her tour last year. And in keeping with Disney's strategy of churning out new stars, they have another budding star opening for them.

I asked Iger how often they'd like to launch a new brand/star from the Disney Channel-- thinking about the fact that teenagers grow up and often attract bad press they way Miley Cyrus did last week. He said that there's no schedule--they create the environment that enables these brands to take off, and they work with what they have. That being said, it seems to me like they always have one new star waiting in the wings, and are roughly on a schedule of one a year, but that's my verdict, not Iger's.

The movie studio also helped lead the growth, partly because the year-earlier quarter wasn't particularly robust. In contrast, this year was boosted by the "National Treasure" sequel in theaters and strong DVD sales of "Enchanted" and best-picture winner "No Country for Old Men." This summer's comparisons will be much more challenging for Disney -- going up against the huge performance of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Ratatouille," which was arguably the best-reviewed movie last year.

This summer Disney has the "Narnia" sequel, "Price Caspian," but I wonder if it'll be able to hit the box office heights the first one did and Disney has to share the earnings with co-producer Walden Media. And then there's "Wall-E" from Pixar, which has never produced a bomb. Wall Street is certainly aware that the comparisons will be tough.

I spoke to Iger about Disney's digital revenues--a hot topic considering that we're on the heels of a writers' strike over digital revenues and facing a potential strike from the actors guild over the same revenue stream. Iger said that of Disney's roughly $35 billion in revenues this year, $2 billion will be from digital, about half of which are from online sales of vacation packages. Iger said he thinks about digital differently for Disney than he thinks the other media companies do. He says it's not about a new revenue stream, it's about giving consumers more options about how and where to consume Disney content.

Giving those extra options should retain consumers while also eventually growing both the top and bottom line.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.