Business

Bob Iger says Disney’s mission is to entertain, not send messages


Disney CEO Bob Iger said his company is not interested in sending messages in its movies and TV shows.

In an interview with CNBC on Thursday morning, Iger said Disney’s No. 1 mission is to capture broad — if increasingly diverse — audiences.

“Infusing messaging [in Disney media] is not we’re up to,” he said. “We need to be entertaining.”

Iger was speaking one day after his leadership received a vote of confidence from stakeholders in the face of an aggressive activist shareholder campaign led by billionaire Nelson Peltz, who had taken the company to task for its lackluster stock performance in recent years.

Peltz had also hit out at the company in an interview with the Financial Times for having dabbled in “woke” commentary.

“Why do I have to have a Marvel that’s all women?” Peltz asked. “Not that I have anything against women, but why do I have to do that? Why can’t I have Marvels that are both?” In comments Peltz made about the blockbuster Marvel film, “Black Panther,” he asked, “Why do I need an all-Black cast?”

That sentiment has also been echoed by Elon Musk, who joked on April Fools Day he had been appointed head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the company. In the run-up to Wednesday’s shareholder vote, Musk had also endorsed Peltz.

On Thursday, Iger told CNBC’s David Faber that he “ignore[s]” Musk.

Musk’s comments “have no relevance to the Walt Disney Company,” Iger said.

The Disney chief executive viewed the episode as little more than a “distraction” given that the company was already focused on strategic priorities like making the Disney+ streaming platform profitable and nailing down the company’s succession plan.

Peltz, Iger said, “didn’t have any new ideas.”

The interview comes a day after Iger won a key battle against a group of outside investors who’d sought to bring a slate of new board members tasked explicitly with increasing shareholder value.

Even with that victory, Iger still faces the daunting task of returning Disney to sustained growth after a decade of lackluster performance, at least when measured by its share price, which at about $119, has not changed much from the levels seen 10 years ago.

Among the company’s other priorities: integrating Hulu into Disney+; breathing new life into flagship properties like Marvel and Star Wars; transitioning ESPN into the new, streaming-and-gambling focused sports consumption era after decades of cable TV dominance; and navigating the complex culture war politics that continue to wrack America.

“This activist move could wake Disney up and force it to spread its wings,” said Brian Stutland, chief investment officer at Equity Armor Investments. He said Disney has tended to focus on creating media properties with strong tie-ins to its parks, but said that could now change.

“It could force them into becoming more ‘Hollywood’ than just Star Wars and superheroes,” Stutland said. “If they can accomplish that, then the stock and the company are going to be in good shape.”

Disney has a host of other media and studio resources at its disposal through its acquisitions of ESPN and 21st Century Fox, Stutland said — properties that should make it one of the dominant streaming players going forward.

“They can become a lower cost way for people to get entertainment,” Stutland said. While some additional initial spending may be required, Disney+ is already near profitability, so it shouldn’t be a problem, he said.

In the CNBC interview, Iger said Disney’s streaming business needs to increase user engagement, reduce marketing costs, “program more smartly” outside the U.S. market and crack down on password-sharing, among other initiatives.

Separately, the 73-year-old Iger has also faced questions about who will succeed him — especially in light of the failed tenure of Bob Chapek, who Disney named as its CEO in 2020 only to see Iger return two years later. CNBC’s Alex Sherman reported that Dana Walden, co-chair of Disney Entertainment, the arm of the company in charge of movies and TV shows, is a strong contender for the top job. She would be the company’s first woman CEO and one of the few among America’s 50 largest companies.

“She comes from a Hollywood background,” Stutland said. “That’s what they need to do, is to focus on that.”

Iger began his career running errands for productions at ABC. He moved to Disney in 1995 after its acquisition of ABC, and has served as an executive there ever since.


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