Still from “The Mandalorian” series on Disney’s streaming service Disney+.
It was a Disney show of force. Keeping people in front of screens for four hours to watch an investor day is absurd. The event had multiple intermissions!
But as Disney rolled out show after show for Disney+ — methodically ticking off Marvel character after Marvel character, “Star Wars” spinoff after spinoff, Pixar movie after Pixar movie (The Verge did you a favor and culled the list of announcements to the most important 52) — I couldn’t help but think about how Disney is playing the streaming video game at an entirely different level than its competition.
For pretty much every other company in the streaming wars, the goal is to acquire the most popular content to entice paying month subscribers. That turns content spending into an arms race as companies including Netflix, AT&T‘s WarnerMedia, Comcast‘s NBCUniversal, ViacomCBS and Discovery throw darts at series, producers, actors and ideas in the hopes of generating zeitgeist-y hits.
But Disney’s strategy is different.
Disney is methodically building movies and shows off its own intellectual property and then using hit characters to introduce new ones. It has turned actors into superheroes (Paul Rudd is Ant Man, Scarlett Johansson is Black Widow, Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo is Hulk, etc.) and will repeatedly use them in feature films, Disney+ series and cameo appearances. It announced a dozen “Star Wars” pieces of content, reviving actors in old roles (Hayden Christenson as Darth Vader, Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi) and creating new stars.
Disney then takes those movies and series and builds theme park rides based on them. It sells merchandise off of them. It builds a world of American culture off of them.
This flywheel isn’t new for Disney. But the pure audaciousness of it was on full display Thursday. Disney’s four-hour show was a ruthless, punishing display of IP-driven content. It reminded me of when the U.S. Dream Team Olympic basketball teams would play other countries and pulverize them into submission with waves of talent.
Disney hasn’t even focused on ESPN+ yet, which it predicts will have 20 million to 30 million subscribers by 2024, up from an old estimate of 8 million to 12 million. That number doesn’t even account for when ESPN may start shifting highly-rated live sporting events to streaming from linear cable TV, assuming Disney continues to own the rights.
Disney executive chairman Bob Iger deserves credit for architecting Disney’s streaming strategy around its powerful assets. WarnerMedia has DC Comics and distributed the “Harry Potter” movies but doesn’t own theme parks. NBCUniversal has theme parks but has to license some of its most popular intellectual property (like “Harry Potter”) because it doesn’t own the IP. ViacomCBS has “Star Trek” and “SpongeBob” but has thus far differentiated its streaming ambitions around live NFL games and breaking news. Discovery just unveiled its streaming plans around unscripted TV just last week. Needless to say, it’s not investing in HGTV and Food Channel movies and theme parks.
Disney’s headline moment came near the end of the presentation, when it announced it had upped its Disney+ subscriber estimate to 230 million to 260 million by 2024 from its previous estimate last year of 60 million to 90 million. That type of increase is astounding.
Perhaps even more impressive, Disney’s streaming push has already accomplished the Wall Street goal of transitioning from traditional pay TV to streaming: It has achieved a trading multiple that surpasses Netflix. Disney’s forward price-to-earnings multiple is 65. Netflix’s forward P/E is 56. For comparison, Viacom’s forward P/E is 8.5 and Discovery’s is 9.2.
This is no small feat. Getting Wall Street to value a traditional media company like Netflix was purely theoretical just two years ago. Now Disney has done it. Its stock price has doubled since March.
As Discovery CEO David Zaslav told CNBC last week, Disney has already won the streaming wars. Thursday’s investor day was a public victory lap.
Disclosure: Comcast’s NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC.