Bob Iger Returns as Disney CEO: Will He Unwind Chapek’s Streaming Strategy, Price Hikes?
In a stunning weekend move, the Disney Board Of Directors announced on Sunday that the company’s former CEO Bob Iger is now, again, the company’s new CEO, and that his successor Bob Chapek is now also his predecessor. In a letter to shareholders, the board said that Iger has agreed to serve in the chief executive role for two years and to work with the company to develop the next Disney CEO.
“The Board has concluded that as Disney embarks on an increasingly complex period of industry transformation, Bob Iger is uniquely situated to lead the Company through this pivotal period,” Disney’s chairman of the board Susan Arnold said.
The move comes after the Nov. 8 quarterly earnings report that saw substantial streaming subscriber growth, but also that the direct-to-consumer (DTC) segment of the company had lost $1.5 billion during the three-month period to close the company’s fiscal year.
With economic conditions continuing to worsen, it is clear that the board was ready to move backward in order to move forward. In June, the Disney board unanimously approved a new long-term contract for Chapek, which began on July 1 and was to run through 2025, meaning that removing him from the top spot now will likely come at a not-insignificant cost.
As the company’s losses continued to grow, many inside and outside of Disney began to question Chapek's strategies, from streaming to parks and everything in between. One of the major changes on the streaming front for Disney has been the changes to the pricing structure of Disney+.
Chapek took over as CEO in early 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt everything in the media and tourism industries. At the time, Disney+ had only been streaming for three months, but it had been one of the cornerstones of the final phase of Iger’s 15-year tenure as CEO. Iger saw the platform as a family-friendly, low-cost premium entertainment option that would be a home for all things Disney. However, since then, the company has announced the launch of an ad-supported tier and a substantial price increase, both going into effect on Dec. 8.
While it is far too early to know if Iger will reverse course on either of those options, the shocking timing of the move does suggest that the board is bringing him back to fix some of the perceived messes that Chapek’s tenure has created. With the upcoming price increases taking Disney+’s top tier to $10.99 per month and $109.99 per year, the rates won’t be the highest in streaming, but they will no longer be in the affordable middle ground either.
Clearly, the amount of money that Disney was losing in streaming is not sustainable. Chapek said in the earnings call this month that the company believed that it had hit the nadir and would begin working toward DTC profitability in the coming quarters. So, reversing course on the price increase or abandoning the ad-supported tier seem unlikely at this point, especially as the streaming industry has changed dramatically since Iger was last in charge. However, that doesn’t mean that the returning executive won’t be looking at other ways to turn things around on the streaming side of the business.
Throughout the year, Disney+ has moved further and further away from the family-friendly vision that Iger originally began working towards. From the introduction of R-rated films to the platform in the United States to the integration of the Star platform into Disney+ internationally, the tenor of the service has changed rather dramatically.
In recent months, Chapek has discussed the fact that he had wanted to eventually combine Hulu and Disney+ once the company acquired the final third of the general entertainment service in 2024 — or sooner — from Comcast. Whether that would be a full integration of the services like Warner Bros. Discovery has planned for HBO Max and discovery+ coming up in early 2023, or something more akin to what Disney does internationally by having Star as a content tile inside the service is to be seen, and now with Chapek gone, perhaps it never will be seen.
If Iger is committed to restoring any goodwill that might have been lost from parents and families due to the content changes, there is the possibility that we could see FOX-produced Marvel movies like “Logan” and “Deadpool” and Netflix’s multiple Marvel series bounced from Disney+ over to Hulu. Then, even after Disney takes full ownership of the latter service, they remain separate, standalone streamers with Disney+ being the home for Disney’s core content, while Hulu houses the more mature programming from across the company.
Beyond the changes to streaming, Chapek’s tenure atop Disney proved to be frustrating for many customers and Hollywood insiders alike. On the consumer side, the now-former CEO used the reopening of the company’s theme parks after pandemic shutdowns to institute new pricing and reservation systems that drove the already exorbitant prices to cost-prohibitive levels for many consumers. This was done for two main reasons; first, as Chapek admitted, the demand was there, so the company took advantage of it, and it allowed Disney to theoretically keep crowds more under control to improve the guest experience.
The other reason was likely to supplement the company’s revenue while it continued to lose money on its expansion into streaming. If Chapek could keep the board and investors satisfied with the company’s overall bottom line, perhaps they would overlook the ever-increasing streaming losses. Clearly, that did not happen.
The ousted exec also did not endear himself to many people inside and outside of the company, especially on the creative end. From his mishandling of political issues in the state of Florida to his cost-cutting and reorganization measures, Chapek alienated a lot of people who thought that he was putting profits over the art and experiences that the company was built on and the people who make it.
This summer, Chapek installed Kareem Daniels as the chairman of Disney’s Media and Entertainment Distribution division, meaning that he ultimately made all of the decisions as to where films and series premiered; in theaters, on Hulu, on Disney+, on ABC, on cable, etc.
This decision meant that the creators and each individual content team were left out of those final decisions making it difficult to tailor a title or strategy for its eventual audience. It is possible that Iger will restore the structure that he previously employed that saw Peter Rice head up all of Disney’s TV production. Rice — a long-time, well-respected Hollywood executive — was let go in June during Chapek’s reorganization efforts.
Iger has only been back on the job for less than a day, but he has reportedly already told Disney staffers that there will be more announcements made this week. Whether those are of the pricing or personnel variety is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that Iger was brought back on board for a specific purpose, and that it likely has to do — at least in part — with getting the streaming spending under control. How that will impact viewers moving forward will undoubtedly be something to watch during Iger’s two-year return to the company.
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