Disney CEO Bob Iger sees ESPN eventually becoming “far more of a direct-to-consumer product” as the streaming eruption continues to er the entertainment landscape.
The executive shared that outlook and touched on topics like the launch of Disney+, sports rights negotiations and Kobe Bryant’s death, during a podcast conversation with Bill Simmons, who spent 16 years at ESPN. The discussion was posted overnight Sunday on Simmons’ BS Podcast on The Ringer, his upstart media outfit that announced last week it is being acquired by Spotify.
Iger touched on his memoir, which was published last fall, and summed up his strategic view of running a media company in a turbulent era. “If you’re running a business in a dynamic world … and you try to maintain any kind of status quo, you will become irrelevant,” he said.
Case in point: ESPN, which has lost about one-quarter of its traditional subscribers over the past few years. Nevrtheless, the traditional pay-TV business is “still delivering a fair amount of profitability to ESPN,” making it difficult to make a sharp turn in direction. Iger acknowledged that while streaming service ESPN+ has been “growing nicely” as an “add-on” to the regular, pay-TV version of ESPN, “it’s still relatively small.”
Iger, as he does in his book, pointed to his “unusually candid” remarks about pay-TV subscriber trends, which he made during a conference call with Wall Street analysts in August 2015. While the comments prompted a “harsh” reaction and a plunge in Disney’s stock price, Iger said it was a crucial step in galvanizing the board and company’s will to shift its strategic focus toward streaming. Cut to this month’s quarterly earnings call, which Iger noted was “dominated” by talk of streaming given the news that Disney+ has racked up 28.6 million subscribers in less than three months on the market. “We knew that if we created it right … and priced it right that it would be something that families would really want to have,” Iger said.
Sports rights were a notable topic on the podcast, given the spiraling valuations and the importance of sports to shoring up the traditional bundle while also adding viewer draws to streaming platforms. While the Disney boss didn’t show any cards related to upcoming negotiations, he offered a few interesting bits of color. As to NFL rights, which will be coming up for renewal in the next year or two, Iger said, “I’m not complacent and I’m not concerned. … We will be at the table.”
Simmons said he had a hard time thinking of many cases when networks acquiring major rights ended up with buyer’s remorse, even with the rapidly escalating costs. Iger cited the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, which turned out to be the last Olympics broadcast by ABC before NBC’s three-plus-decade run. “We lost money,” he said, “and it stung.” Prompted by Simmons, Iger also conceded that missing out on the chance in 2005 to lock up both Sunday night and Monday night rights to NFL games was a missed opportunity. “If we could have done it differently, I would,” he said. NBC has gone on to make Sunday Night Football the top-rated show on television for the past decade.
Bryant’s death, meanwhile, has caused a reaction in LA that is “quite stunning to see,” Iger said. “Twenty years, one team. That doesn’t happen too much. … He had a very winning personality.”
Iger said he often spends time interacting with NBA players, who “know I’m a fan.” A half-hour prior to hearing about Bryant’s helicopter crash on the morning it happened, for example, Iger was talking with Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul. “I immediately called Chris back,” he recalled. “We had trouble talking.”
In speaking with ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro and other lieutenants later that day, Iger said he delivered a clear message to them about Bryant: “This is a gigantic story. This is bigger than any of us can possibly imagine. Let’s make sure we jump on this, collectively.”
Iger said his retirement from Disney - which he has finally said will happen in 2021, after earlier plans to exit were reversed - is aimed at emulating the departure from Major League Baseball of LA Dodgers great Sandy Koufax. Asked by Simmons if he is more likely to own an NBA team or run for president during his retirement, Iger said the former is more likely. With speculation swirling about the fate of the New York Knicks, the team Iger grew up rooting for, Simmons suggested he swoop in to save the beleaguered franchise. “You sound like my son,” he said with a chuckle. “Every day, he’s asking me. ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just write a check.'”
Simmons had a stint writing for Jimmy Kimmel Live when it debuted in 2003. He and Iger reminisced about the show’s origins and marveled at its staying power.
Iger said he and former ABC executive Lloyd Braun, who he had had championed the idea of installing Kimmel in late night, were discouraged by the early shows, which featured an untested staff and an open bar. One audience member vomited on opening night after enjoying the open bar, which seemed like an inauspicious sign.
“‘This thing is never going to work,'” Iger recalled telling Braun. “I remember leaving the theater … thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. We have got to hire some adults to supervise this.'” Over time, though, Kimmel “has gotten really good,” Iger said. “He has improved tremendously over the years.”