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Disney Profit Disappoints With Cable TV Woes, Hurricanes Taking a Toll

  • Outlays mean one-year profit ‘anomaly’ will stretch into two
  • FY 2017 ends with first drop in annual earnings since 2009

Walt Disney Co. is going to spend its way out of its problems.

The world’s largest entertainment company, which reported lower profit Thursday, is already working on a new series of “Star Wars” films, movies that can cost $250 million each. The company will spend $1 billion more on its theme parks in the new fiscal year and plans to start making movies and TV shows for a new streaming service that will launch in 2018.

Burbank, California-based Disney is trying to adapt to upheaval in the TV and film industries triggered by new entertainment options like the Netflix streaming service. Viewers are spending less time with conventional media, whether it’s televised sports, DVDs or feature films on the big screen, and that’s forcing companies like Disney to reach out to them directly. All those costs will weigh on profit, the company said.

“They reminded investors that they have these great brands and they’re putting their resources behind them, they’re addressing this head on,” said Robin Diedrich, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. “The longer-term investor will be comfortable with a couple of years of investing, and a flatish type of earnings.”

A wicked hurricane season, falling advertising sales and a canceled movie sapped fourth-quarter profit at Disney, the company said, leading to the first drop in annual results since the financial crisis almost a decade ago. The downdraft from bad weather, lower ad sales and a tough year for movies was too powerful even for Disney, which counts on TV, theme parks, consumer products and its famous studio to fuel growth.

Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger warned a year ago that fiscal 2017 would be an “anomaly” and followed up by saying earnings would be “roughly in line” with last year. His forecast was almost spot on.

Fourth-quarter profit at Disney’s cable TV unit, the company’s single biggest profit contributor, slumped 1.2 percent to $1.24 billion, hurt by weak advertising sales and higher programming costs for baseball and football at ESPN. Affiliate fees rose even as subscribers declined. ESPN plans to fire about 100 employees in a new round of job cuts, according to a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be named.

In recent quarters, the company’s theme-park division came to the rescue with strong earnings, driven by higher ticket prices and guest spending, along with new attractions that boosted attendance. Although profit rose, Hurricane Irma forced Disney to close its four Orlando, Florida, parks for two days and cancel three cruises. Domestic resort profits fell.

Capital spending in the current year will rise by about $1 billion, driven particularly by parks and resorts, Iger said. The company has Star Wars lands under construction in both California and Florida, and Toy Story Lands being built in Orlando and Shanghai. Capital spending totaled $3.63 billion in the year just ended.

“No other company in entertainment today is better equipped to meet the challenges of a changing world or better positioned for continued growth thanks to our collection of brands,” Iger said on the call.

Shares of Disney rose 1.3 percent in extended trading, reversing an initial decline. The stock once a high-flier, is down 1.5 percent this year after a flat 2016, the worst back-to-back years since 2007-2008.

Burbank, California-based Disney faced other headwinds this year, including a light release schedule of just eight films from its movie division, a drop from past years, and the ongoing challenge of finding consumer products to match the bonanzas generated by “Frozen” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The company last quarter took a write-off on an unreleased animated film, “Gigantic.”

Disney said Thursday it’s already working on a new “Star Wars” trilogy to follow the series that’s scheduled to wrap up in December 2019. Rian Johnson, director of “The Last Jedi” installment that opens next month, is already at work on the project. The company also plans to create a “Star Wars” TV show for its new streaming service.

The first picture in Disney’s “Star Wars” revival, “The Force Awakens,” cost $245 million to produce and went on to deliver $2.07 billion in box-office sales, according to Box Office Mojo.

For the quarter ended Sept. 30, Disney reported earnings of $1.07 a share, excluding some items, missing the $1.14 average of analysts’ estimates. Sales slipped to $12.8 billion, compared with projections of $13.3 billion. For the year, profit and revenue both slumped 1 percent.

To adapt to shrinking cable-TV audiences, Iger is introducing direct-to-consumer subscription services based on ESPN and the company’s rich library of children’s programming. But start-up costs, along with the potential loss of sales to third parties such as Netflix Inc., have added to investor worries.

The company reported a $140 million drop in income from investments, citing higher losses at BAMTech, its streaming unit, and Hulu, as well as lower earnings from A+E Television.

That may explain Disney’s interest in acquiring large parts of 21st Century Fox Inc., including its film studio, some cable channels and stake in consumer TV services such as Sky Plc and Hulu LLC. Iger is due to retire in July 2019, potentially making a deal for the $54 billion Fox a crowning achievement in his long, successful career.

On the call Thursday, executives declined to comment on the Fox reports.

— With assistance by Anousha Sakoui, and Brandon Kochkodin


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