Disney Q1 Revenue Weighed Down By ESPN Struggles

Media networks reported a dip in revenue and profit

The Walt Disney Company's logo on the iconography of a dollar bill
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The Walt Disney Company began its fiscal year with a whimper, as the entertainment giant was unable to successfully fend off headwinds facing its cable business, reporting revenue that fell short of expectations.

After the close of markets Tuesday, Disney reported revenue of $14.8 billion and earnings of $1.55 a share for the three months ended Dec. 31, which the company classifies as the first quarter of its fiscal year. The Mouse House reeled in $15.2 billion in revenue and earnings of $1.63 a share for the corresponding period a year earlier, which included one of the biggest movies ever, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Analysts had estimated $15.3 billion in revenue and earnings of $1.50 a share on average for the most recent quarter.

“We’re very pleased with our financial performance in the first quarter,” Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement accompanying the earnings. “Our Parks and Resorts delivered excellent results and, coming off a record year, our Studio had three global hits including our first billion-dollar film of fiscal 2017, ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.’ With our proven strategy and unparalleled collection of brands and franchises, we are extremely confident in our ability to continue to drive significant value over the long term.”

Cable networks, particularly ESPN, have been an albatross on Disney’s stock price even as the company’s two other major prongs, movies and theme parks, continue to perform well. As cheaper TV alternatives began to proliferate, ESPN hemorrhaged subscribers during the course of 2016 and is now at less than 88 million, compared with a peak of 100.1 million in 2011. At an estimated $7 per subscriber, that dip has been a substantial hit to Disney, especially considering media networks made up 49 percent of Disney’s profits during fiscal 2016.

At the same time, rights fees for the live sports ESPN specializes in broadcasting continue to go up, as there’s plenty of competition for one of the few pieces of programmed television that still delivers monster ratings. ESPN will pay $7.3 billion for content this year – the biggest price tag among all media companies. Operating income at Disney’s cable networks division — primarily ESPN — plunged 11 percent compared with the same time the previous year. Disney attributed that drop entirely to lower ESPN revenue.

The timing of this year’s college football playoff games — always among ESPN’s highest-rated broadcasts — also wasn’t favorable. Three of the games occurred during the company’s fiscal first quarter compared with six last year, accounting for part of the drop. However, Disney also identified declining subscribers as a contributing factor in its earnings report.

On the other hand, Disney’s film division had a record 2016, becoming the only studio in history to gross more than $7 billion in a single year at the international box office and $3 billion domestically. Disney also had four of the five highest-grossing films at the domestic box office last year. After a mid-year lull, which was reflected in its last earnings report, Disney regrouped for the holiday season behind “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” which has already blasted its way past $1 billion worldwide — but the studio couldn’t match its banner haul from last holiday season.

Parks and resorts was the Mouse House’s best-performing division, and the only to report year-over-year gains in revenue and profit. Behind new attractions at home and the opening of Shanghai Disneyland Park in June, the division reported a 6 percent increase in revenue and a 13 percent jump in profit.