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Disney Dazzles Wall Street, but What Will 2020 Hold for the Media Sector?

Bob Iger wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera© Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Shutterstock
Looking back at the past decade, there's no legacy Hollywood player that has been able to cause quite as big of a stir on Wall Street as Disney. The company and its media sector peers spiraled into a tailspin in the mid-2010s after Disney chief Bob Iger uttered but a few mild words about cable subscriber losses; flash forward to Disney Plus' big unveiling in April, which sent the stock up nearly 12% in just one trading session.
As if through a Jedi mind trick, Disney has essentially shifted investors' focus off the industry's present (pay-TV declines) and onto its future (the potential for streaming services): These are not the metrics you are looking for, it is saying. Now, the company is strutting through the finance district with renewed swagger going into 2020 as the analyst community looks largely favorably on the House of Mouse.
Jessica Reif Ehrlich of Bank of America Merrill Lynch is among those who think Disney is poised for a historic transition. The company is increasingly in its own league even among its traditional Hollywood peers, and Iger's empire is endowed with so many "touchpoints" to reach consumers: film, TV, theme parks, cruise ships, hotels, consumer products. That's a huge advantage.
"Disney is a powerhouse. The launch (of Disney Plus) took everyone by surprise," Reif Ehrlich said. "They launched hot and heavy."
There's some disagreement, though, as to whether Disney's moves will have a halo effect on the rest of the sector, which has also mapped out a digital path forward.
Although investors are still enamored of Netflix and FAANG stocks (read: Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google parent Alphabet), there's an understanding that the media giants are starting to pull out all the stops to transform their businesses on the back of the valuable IP that is controlled by about a half dozen legacy Hollywood imprints.
"These stocks have been in the doghouse," Reif Ehrlich said. "Relative to their historic performance they've really fallen out of grace."
In general, Reif Ehrlich thinks the consumer interest in the new wave of streaming products will be good for the share prices of Big Media. But Pivotal analyst Jeff Wlodarczak believes that outside of any potential acquisitive action, the subscriber environment is going to be a "really, really painful backdrop."
"For next year, I think there's more pain in pay TV," he said. "I think it's going to be an overhang on just about everything in the media space."
Reif Erlich sees good news on the horizon for well-stocked companies that "own their own content." The current moment is a period of "figuring it out — what's the right model, how can we exploit our IP in new ways."
Alexia Quadrani of JP Morgan notes that Disney Plus is not the only segment of the company that will command investor scrutiny. The parks business and the movie studio have high bars to reach after several years of strong performance. As Disney Plus will require investment and foregone revenue, the company will lean on those divisions to help it power through. The fate of linear ESPN, the Disney Channel et al will still be tracked closely by investors.
Cowen analyst Doug Creutz believes that it could be a tough year for theaters, even for Disney, which has cranked out half a dozen billion-dollar box office winners this calendar year but has no direct "Avengers," "Toy Story" or "Frozen" sequels to look forward to in 2020. (There will be Marvel's "Avengers" prequel "Black Widow," of course, and likely enough momentum from "Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker" that ticket sales should steadily overflow into the new year.)
JP Morgan's Quadrani sees a "constant balancing act" ahead for Disney and others who are trying to maintain linear businesses at the same time that they invest in direct-to-consumer streaming.
Within Disney, Quadrani is closely watching the strategy that is developing around Hulu. The adult-focused streaming platform is being positioned to complement Disney Plus' kids and family-friendly fare.
Ben Swinburne, head of U.S. research for Morgan Stanley, sees Disney as being in a good position but has high expectations now that Disney Plus has demonstrated such high consumer awareness.
"They need to show that the appeal of Disney Plus outside the U.S. is substantial," Swinburne said. "Expectations about the adoption curve have gone up [after Disney's initial announcement that its streamer had been downloaded 10 million times in the first 24 hours]. Secondly, they have to show that they can add additional content at a level of quality and quantity that will allow them to grow in existing markets like the U.S."
Swinburne sees WarnerMedia's moves with HBO Max as significant for a legacy Hollywood studio. But so far it doesn't appear to be the potential game-changer for AT&T as Disney Plus, Hulu et al could be for Disney.
"I don't think the expectations are as high for HBO Max as they are for Disney Plus," he said.
Pivotal's Wlodarczak worries about one aspect of Disney Plus' strategy in particular, though: potential for churn, especially since access to the platform is currently free to an estimated 20 million or so Verizon customers.
"I think the churn's going to be truly, truly massive," he said.
If there's one thing most on the Street can agree on, it's that the current state of subscription-based television is challenged. Wlodarczak projected that pay-TV is "only headed in one direction."
"Traditional MVPD sub losses are almost certain to accelerate," echoed Cowen's Creutz. "It's almost impossible to see how they don't. The question is how much."
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