Disney CEO Bob Chapek, coming off a promotional blitz at the company’s D23 conference last weekend, reiterated many of those messages for a Wall Street audience but struck a more confident tone than ever before in outlining the future of Hulu.
Speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia & Tech Conference, Chapek noted that while Hulu has been operated by Disney since 2019, a full streaming combo would need to wait due to Comcast’s financial stake. Under the terms of a deal reached by the companies when Disney acquired most of 21st Century Fox, Disney can buy out Comcast at the start of 2024. Chapek said he “would love to” execute the buyout sooner, but he indicated Comcast is not in a hurry. Recent estimates have estimated the valuation of the stake at $27.5 billion and that number is not likely to decline during an era when streaming assets continue to be prized.
“The thing that you worry about when you’re Disney is brand friction, with some of the content that we may have in general entertainment,” Chapek said. “I am amazed every day in this job how elastic the Disney brand is. I would tell you that we have had no blowback whatsoever in terms of including that general entertainment content on a Disney-branded streaming proposition” in territories outside of the U.S. “I’m not saying it would be received exactly like that in the U.S., but it gives us some reason to believe that we have more degrees of freedom than anybody would have ever suspected.”
A blending of the two services has been expected by many insiders and industry observers, and it would match the strategies afoot at Warner Bros Discovery, Paramount Global and other companies as the market matures. Yet lining up Hulu’s programming, which includes everything from dystopian drama A Handmaid’s Tale to topical comedy films like Plan B and Happiest Season as well as edgy F/X titles like American Horror Story, in the same app as Pixar and other kids fare has always represented a unique challenge. Chapek said he has become convinced that such an offering could be brought to market and “not be subject to organ rejection by the consumer.”
Continuing to reach broad scale remains a key objective for Disney. While in the aggregate it now has more streaming subscriptions than Netflix, many customers subscribe to multiple services. Additionally, Chapek said, there is incentive to minimize hassle created when a viewer wants to, say, toggle between the new season of Atlanta and a Star Wars series on Disney+. “There’s a little bit of consumer friction there,” the CEO said. “Long-term, we can avoid that, and 2024 is not that far away.”
Even in the U.S., Disney has been realigning its programming with an eye toward stocking Disney+ with more titles not directly connected to its original five pillars of Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, National Geographic and Disney. It shifted ABC mainstays like Dancing with the Stars and Black-ish to streaming, after seeing significant tune-in and new subscriptions for Peter Jackson’s Beatles docuseries Get Back last fall.
Pricing was another major topic during the 40-minute session. Asked about what kind of price increases may be possible down the line — even though the company is getting set to implement its second major hike later this year — Chapek said he wasn’t expecting a spike in churn. Therefore, he suggested, more increases could be on the way soon. “It’s what the market will bear, which is a direct reflection of price/value, and I think we’re way under-priced relative to the value that we provide,” he said. “We owe it to our shareholders to try to get that recognized.”
Data from the nearly 3-year run of Disney+ and the path of ESPN+, which launched in May 2018, will help inform decisions on pricing, Chapek said.
The price where Disney+ began — $6.99 in November 2019 — is “absurd” in retrospect, Chapek said, and makes comparisons seem drastic when the service tacks on additional dollars. The low initial price “helped us get to where we’re at, with those huge sub numbers,” he acknowledged. “It’s hard to believe we’ve only been at this three years.”
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