Disney Faces Economic Downturn—But Extending Video Games?


Disney reported its fourth quarter and full year earnings after the bell Thursday, and Wall Street has been trying to sort out the economic impact on the media giant, which so far has performed much better than its peers through the downturn.

Disney reporting net income of 40 cents a share, 43 cents per share if you exclude bad debt from Lehman Brothers Holdings' bankruptcy (about which Disney is suing) and other one-time items. Sales grew 5.8 percent to $9.45 billion, more than analysts expected.

All eyes were on Disney's theme parks division as an indicator of how consumer spending is, and will, hold up. Sales at the division rose 6.5 percent to $2.97 billion, remarkable considering the economic downturn, while parks and resorts profits dropped to $412 million, down from $430 million in the year-earlier period. CEO Bob Iger said reservations have "fallen off considerably."

The company doesn't ever give guidance, but it's clear that 2009 could be rough. Iger emphasized how much the theme park division has diversified its mix, investing more in lower- cost hotel rooms etc. And in the post-earnings conference call Iger announced a new promotion for the theme parks, giving four nights for the price of three, in order to drive traffic. (see correction below to this last sentence).

Economic Downturn - Unemployment, and Earnings

The economic downturn also took its toll on the company's television division—ABC showing a $150 million loss as advertisers cut back. The TV division also carried higher pilot production costs that were pushed into this quarter by the Writers' Strike. In contrast, the company's cable networks, including ESPN and Disney Channel, did quite well. Growth in cable subscription fees offset any softness in advertising and the division earned $1.2 billion, up $116 million from the year ago quarter. Only about 19 percent of Disney's revenue comes from advertising, far less than many of its peers.

The only division showing a drop in revenue was Disney's film business, down five percent from the year ago period. The summer quarter faced very tough comparisons with the year ago period which was bolstered by the huge success of Pirates of the Caribbean. And the division carried the costs of marketing "Beverly Hills Chihuahua", a huge hit, but not released until after the end of the quarter.

I sat down with CEO Bob Iger in an exclusive interview after the company's post-earnings conference call. He talked about the importance of delivering quality content through a rough economy; people will want to consume entertainment, so the goal becomes delivering the best content and building sustainable brands.

Iger noted that its first in a series of straight-to-DVD Faries movies built around the Tinkerbell character did phenomenally well, selling two million copies in the US in its first seven days on the market. Iger also touched on the fact that its capital position means that the company could make an acquisition.

Rumors have been swirling that Disney could be interested in buying Electronic Arts , as a way to extend its reach—and brands—into the video game space. Iger confirmed that it is just a rumor, but acknowledged that in this market, there could be some good opportunities.

Update correction: Text should be: "And in the post-earnings conference call Iger announced a new promotion for the theme parks-- giving visitors three extra days and nights nights when they pay for four days and nights, in order to drive traffic."

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