Bob Iger has returned as CEO of Disney two years after stepping down. What does his comeback tell us about the challenges for Disney and other streaming services?
If there’s one thing Disney loves, it’s a sequel.
And not just when it comes to the Marvel franchise.
“Also just a stunning development in the business world overnight. Bob Iger is at the top of Disney. Just two years after retiring from a legendary run, he replaces his own successor: Bob Chapek.”CNN Business
Bob Iger was CEO of Walt Disney Company for 15 years.
During that time, he oversaw the launch of the streaming services Disney+ and ESPN+, and acquisitions of the Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm studios.
It was a hugely successful period. To many, Bob Iger was Disney – a visionary who embraced the company’s beloved brand, and kept it alive.
So his decision to step down in 2020 came as a shock.
It also came with high expectations. Here’s his successor, Bob Chapek, speaking to CNBC two years ago.
“Well, I obviously have huge shoes to fill. I mean, Bob’s legacy in the company is just profound. I think my role is now to take the strategic pillars that he’s so well established over the last 15 years and continue to work on those and implement those in the marketplace.”CNBC
After stepping down, Bob Iger remained as Disney’s executive chairman. Then, in December 2021, he announced his retirement.
But now – in true superhero style – he’s back.
Two and a half years isn’t that long to be CEO of such a significant company. So what went wrong for Bob Chapek?
For starters, his brief time at the helm of Disney was hardly short of controversy.
Scarlett Johansson, the star of the Marvel superhero film Black Widow, is suing the Walt Disney Company over its simultaneous release of the movie in cinemas and on its streaming service. Ms Johansson alleges the movie will cost her millions of dollars.”BBC News
After a highly publicised dispute with one of Disney’s leading ladies, there came a series of political controversies.
“John Oliver is slamming Disney CEO Bob Chapek and his response to Florida’s Don’t Say Gay bill. During Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver kicked off the topic by playing a clip of Governor Ron DeSantis answering a reporter about the bill, which would prohibit classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary schools.”The Hollywood Reporter
There were also rumours of a spat between the new CEO and his predecessor, with Bob Chapek feeling consistently undermined by Bob Iger.
And on top of it all, Bob Chapek couldn’t have joined Disney at a worse time.
He had to steer the company through a global pandemic that ravaged its theme park business, and he struggled to make a success of Disney’s streaming services.
“A combined loss of $1.5 billion resulted from Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+ in this quarter. That’s versus a loss of $1.1 billion in the third quarter. Streaming profitability has been one of the most important things for investors, and I think that’s really the main driver of this dip that we’re seeing in the stock, along with the fact that we saw that miss on both revenue and adjusted earnings per share. Overall, not the best quarter for Disney. And I think this comes with a little bit of a surprise for investors.”Yahoo Finance
Disney has 235.7 million streaming subscribers, which include Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+. That’s more subscribers than Netflix expects to have by the end of this year.
But having lots of subscribers doesn’t mean you make a profit. And it’s a problem faced by other streamers as well.
Netflix has just launched an ad-supported subscription tier to try and increase profits after a subscriber slowdown. And Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns the streaming services HBO Max and Discovery+, is also reporting billions in losses.
So can Bob Iger save the day for Disney?
It’s rare for a chief executive to make a comeback like this, but not unheard of.
Steve Jobs brought Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy when he returned as CEO in 1997. And Starbucks founder Howard Schultz did the same when he reprised his role in 2008.
But it’s not always successful. One 2020 study found that second-round CEOs had a 10 per cent worse yearly stock performance compared to those doing the job for the first time.
That hasn’t stopped investors from rejoicing at Bob Iger’s return.
“I was so happy. When I saw the news last night, I thought I was dreaming and it was like my dream came true. Bob Chapek had been running the business into the ground and had made some crucial errors and handling some very difficult situations. But it’s time to really refocus the business back on creating great content for a reasonable cost.”Bloomberg
He’s signed a contract for two years, during which time he’ll try and find a new successor.
And he’ll have to make tough decisions.
Bob Iger has already announced plans for layoffs, cost cutting and a hiring freeze. And he’s already undoing Bob Chapek’s controversial restructuring of the company.
The new CEO said he wants to put “decision-making back in the hands of our creative teams”, and to focus on profitability – not new subscribers.
Bob Iger’s return might soothe investors, but it’ll also mean dramatic changes at Disney.
This episode was written by Patricia Clarke and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.