When Bob Iger talks about managing the Walt Disney brand, he speaks in a financial argot of deposits and withdrawals—a worldview he borrowed from his late friend, Steve Jobs. A smart strategic acquisition, a highly rated show, a good bit of press: these are “brand deposits.” A box office flop, a misguided marketing campaign, a public controversy: these are “brand withdrawals.” It is fair to assume that when the recently re-installed C.E.O. of Disney saw the front page of the New York Post, last Thursday, broadcasting an extramarital affair between two ABC News anchors under the headline “Good Moaning America,” a withdrawal had been made.
Iger has Herculean challenges before him: increasing profits and raising a beleaguered stock, growing Disney+ and deciding what to do with Hulu, managing the inexorable decline of linear and determining the fate of ESPN, keeping Marvel and Star Wars fans happy, correcting theme park prices, and identifying a capable successor who he won’t have to come back and replace yet again. In the grand scheme of things, a scandal involving two minor ABC morning show personalities—Amy Robach and T.J. Holmes, the co-hosts of GMA3, as the third hour of Good Morning America is known—is about as low on his list of priorities as you can get. As one media executive put it, speaking in the art of anatomical metaphor, GMA3 is a cuticle on the finger of GMA, which is but a hand of ABC News, itself the arm of Disney Television on the corporate corpus of The Walt Disney Company. In other words: not quite as serious of a threat as Dan Loeb jumping from the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
But a withdrawal is a withdrawal, and what is likely most concerning to Iger is the way in which this scandal was handled. How did an innocuous, totally consensual affair between two B-level (if even) talents blow up into a multi-week national tabloid story, dragging the GMA brand through the mud in the process? And what does that say about the management at ABC News, a lucrative, if declining, business that is home to both the nation’s most-watched morning show and most-watched nightly news broadcast—and, importantly, a business that is near and dear to Iger’s heart, given his upbringing at Capital Cities/ABC? Iger has occasionally described ABC News, perhaps with some knowing hyperbole, as the jewel in the crown of the Walt Disney Company.