CEO Iger Sees Disney's Future in Mobile Video, Technology

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Walt Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger.
Walt Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger. Credit: Chris Goodney/Bloomberg

Walt Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger said the company's future lies in using technology to make more direct connections to consumers, although he declined to say whether he was interested in buying Twitter or Netflix.

The following are excerpts from Mr. Iger's remarks during a luncheon Wednesday at the Boston College Chief Executives Club. Mr. Iger, 65, made the remarks during in an on-stage conversation with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

"Technology's tools are giving the consumer an ability to pick and choose and even price in a much more consumer-centric manner, so you have to embrace it because it's not going away. The biggest thing that we're trying to do now is figure out what technology's role is in distributing the great content that we have."

Bloomberg News reported last week that Disney had hired an adviser to consider a Twitter bid. Netflix stock rose this week on speculation Disney may be a buyer. Mr. Kraft asked him about both companies.

"I obviously won't comment on potential acquisitions: that shouldn't mean that we are doing anything or not doing anything. When you mention Netflix and Twitter and Facebook and a variety of other -- Amazon, Apple -- new entrants into the marketplace you see companies that are not only technology companies and distributing content, they are starting to invest more and more in making content. Twitter licensing the NFL is a example of that."

Disney, the world's largest entertainment company, is trying to address a slowdown in growth at ESPN, its most profitable unit. The company spurred a selloff of media stocks last year after acknowledging the sports channel was losing subscribers.

ESPN's performance is closely watched by investors and media analysts because it's the most expensive component of the typical cable-TV package sold to consumers. Disney and other broadcasters have long argued that sports and other live events are the most lucrative programming on TV because the audiences are large and viewers can't easily skip through commercials.

Operating income at Disney's cable-TV division, which includes ESPN and the Disney Channel, rose less than 1% in the quarter that ended July 2.

"I'm very bullish about ESPN because ESPN has created a tremendous brand for itself and has either created or licensed under long-term deals the best sports out there."

The executive, who's been CEO of the company since 2005, acknowledged that "SportsCenter," the network's flagship news show, was losing viewers as more people get news and highlight clips from the internet and social media.

"Not only do they have to adapt to moving it onto mobile platforms, which I think they have done quite well, they also have to think about the disaggregation of the program itself and the fact that the destination that was once 'SportsCenter' -- that you'd turn on for an hour and watch sports -- well, it is still strong, it is still quite successful from a bottom-line perspective, but it is not what it used to be because it has been disaggregated by new technology, mostly mobile technology."

Low-cost TV packages featuring just a few channels, such as Dish's Sling TV, have taken customers but may be hitting their limits, Mr. Iger said.

"That resulted in a loss of subscribers for not just ESPN but some of the other sports services that was a little bit steeper than Wall Street would have liked and that we would have liked. But that has plateaued, fortunately. And we don't see that growing much right now."

Disney in August agreed to invest $1 billion for a one-third stake in BAMTech, the video-streaming arm of Major League Baseball. Mr. Iger plans to use that platform to offer an online subscription to some ESPN sports content next year.

"In today's world it's almost not enough to have all that stuff unless you have access to your consumer who -- because of technology -- is providing you with incredible data, to provide the consumer with a more customized personalized experience and to basically monetize the whole thing better. So, what we're thinking about a lot is what role does technology have in distributing from us to the consumer? How must we invest in that?"

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