It’s been a rollicking month, and head-spinning few days, in the media business. Herewith, on Thanksgiving eve, my conversation with Puck co-founder and editor-in-chief Jon Kelly about the Iger-Chapek aftershocks, the Disney succession question, the future of ESPN, Zaslav’s CNN shakeout, and updates on the Buzbee–Ryan melodrama at The Washington Post.
Jon Kelly: Alright, Dylan, let’s start in the place that every conversation must begin: Bob Iger’s return. What’s the latest inside conversation? And also, a friend just told me he saw him having lunch the other day with Kevin Mayer? Is that a friendly rapprochement, or maybe the start of an olive branch? The gossip mill is in overdrive these days.
Dylan Byers: The Iger-Chapek shakeup really is one of those rare Shakespearean plot twists that deserves its own chapter in the histories of corporate America, and it’s a history still being written. But it’s been fascinating to watch the first drafts of the official, Disneyfied Narrative™ come together.
Here we have Bob Iger, the rightful king, triumphantly returning to Burbank to retake the throne and restore peace and prosperity to a troubled kingdom. Bob Chapek, Iger’s inept successor, has been humiliated and driven from the castle, along with his top deputy Kareem Daniel. Christine McCarthy, the Disney C.F.O. who sounded the alarm on Chapek’s ineptitude, is cast as the brave whistleblower behind the rebel alliance. Finally, a litany of former Disney execs—Peter Rice, Kevin Mayer, etc.—are said to be waiting in the wings for a possible return, while Dana Walden eyes a hypothetical ascension to the throne in two years’ time.
There is, as always, much more nuance and uncertainty. Iger’s return is an admission that Chapek was a lousy successor, as has been evident, from his oft-chewed-over mistakes—from the ill-advised corporate reorg to the “Don’t Say Gay” debacle to the ScarJo debacle to last week’s truly disastrous earnings call. Iger didn’t have to not-so-privately disparage him from the sidelines all along.
Don’t get me wrong, Iger is in many ways the ideal C.E.O. His unquestionably successful 15-year run atop Disney, his bold acquisition strategy, and his 5x growth on market cap, all performed with seemingly effortless charm, make him a legend in his own time. But he screwed up the last chapter of his tenure. Now, he’s being given a chance to rewrite it—which, in addition to his inability to acquire an NFL, Premier League or NBA team, may help to explain why he agreed to come back. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Iger didn’t ride triumphantly into Burbank; he got on a plane and went back to New York to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, deftly managing the fallout from his iPhone and iPad.
The depiction of McCarthy as Disney’s savior is problematic as well. Several reports credit her with alerting the board to Chapek’s incompetency and forcing them to take action—effectively suggesting she led a mutiny to save Disney from ruin. (There is a widespread belief among Disney insiders that she tipped off CNBC’s Jim Cramer as well, leading to his public call for Chapek’s ouster after last week’s earnings report). First, McCarthy was Chapek’s chief financial officer, which means she bears at least some culpability for Disney’s poor financial performance and that disastrous earnings report. Second, McCarthy, along with Daniel and Chapek’s chief of staff Arthur Bochner, was a member of the insular Chapek brain trust, with input on nearly every decision made during his tenure. So she probably also bears some responsibility for the very problems she was identifying. At the very least, she’s a more complicated figure than these early reports suggest.
As for those former executives, I’m actually not so sure any of them will come back. Tom Staggs definitely won’t—there’s still too much bad blood there—and Kevin Mayer, Staggs’ business partner, is too wrapped up in the venture game. As for Peter Rice, it’s certainly possible, but I don’t think you can bring him back with anything less than the promise of giving him the C.E.O. title, and I don’t think that’s what Iger wants. And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t put too much stock in who Iger has been seen dining with recently—Mayer, also Rice—because he’s got a lot of friends in Hollywood, and rarely eats alone.
Anyway, how does Iger intend to rewrite the succession story? I’m not sure. But if he really intends to stay for just two years—it would not be unlike him to extend, and then extend again—the grooming process needs to start right away. Dana Walden is widely seen as the strongest internal candidate, but she lacks experience in many aspects of the business and would need fast training. She has the creative and talent relationships, which are essential, but Disney is a global media giant with a motion picture business and a television business and a streaming business and a theme park business and a cruise business and a consumer goods business and, above all else, a storied brand to protect. And, as Chapek proved, an intolerance for a leader learning the ropes on the job.
Iger himself served as chief operating officer for five years before he got the top spot. Anyway, the big picture here is that, at the moment, apparently no one can do this job except for Iger, which is a problem in and of itself for Disney.
Jon: Part of the palace intrigue surrounding Iger’s return has been about some white whale of a deal for Disney—the notion that he could reverse the sagging fortunes of the Chapek era with an M&A master stroke. Do you buy this? And wouldn’t he be restricted by the same D.O.J. and F.T.C. issues as everyone else?
Dylan: I’ve heard this too, and I certainly think it’s on the table. If you’re Iger, you don’t come out of retirement to play small ball. All that said, there are some more immediate priorities—undoing the Chapek damage, stabilizing the executive ranks, reassuring Wall Street, finding your next successor, et cetera. After that, you start working on positioning the company for long-term success, which could mean a significant reassessment of the existing infrastructure. What are you doing with Hulu? (Our partner Julia Alexander has some analysis here.) What’s the plan for Star Wars? Do you finally cut ties with the declining linear business? Do you spin off ESPN, or do you instead get more aggressive about moving key sporting events to ESPN+? What’s the strategy in gaming!? And then, finally, do you need to be acquisitive?
The changes taking place in media right now are happening fast, and but for regulation there really aren’t any limits to what’s possible. But I’m not convinced that the promise of one last deal is what brought Iger back. I think he found that the post-Disney life of investing and yachting and vacationing didn’t provide the same stimulation and gratification as running a global media company. And once it became clear that he wasn’t going to run for office, and that he couldn’t acquire Chelsea or the Phoenix Suns, nothing was ever going to fill that hole. Meanwhile the Chapek failures nagged at him because they were tarnishing Iger’s beloved Disney and even his own legacy. So, given the choice between staying home or playing ball, he, like Tom Brady, decided to play ball.
Jon: Last Iger question. As our partner Julia Alexander recently noted, the streamers are increasingly pivoting to live events, including sports. Does this make ESPN, whose fortunes have sagged in the past decade, an underappreciated component of the Disney bundle?
Dylan: I’m not sure just yet what happens with ESPN, but I have to imagine Jimmy Pitaro and his team feel a lot of whiplash from the parent company’s back-and-forth strategy on sports. Disney has entertained the idea of spinning off ESPN since the first Iger era, and Chapek took a very aggressive look at that option shortly after he took over, as I’ve reported. Then, after the Netflix correction, Chapek committed to keeping ESPN inside Disney. Meanwhile, activist investor Dan Loeb came in calling for a spin off, then pivoted away from it. Talk about uncertainty.
I think Julia is absolutely right in her assessment about the value of live events, and especially live sports, in the streaming realm, and Disney has an incredible asset in the ESPN brand. They just need to figure out how to untether themselves from linear—which is really hard when it continues to be lucrative, and when you’re locked into a decade-long rights agreement with the NFL. Anyway, I’ll look into it and report back.
Jon: We’ve focused a lot of energy on decoding the changing landscape around CNN, where Chris Licht has been forced to cut costs amid sinking ratings, rapidly transforming consuming behaviors, and increasingly unnerved staff. But the dynamics at CNN are merely a microcosm of the challenges faced by his boss, Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav. Has the integration, framed behind the rapidly deteriorating economic environment, been more challenging than Zaz expected? Or, rather, than Wall Street analysts anticipated?
Dylan: Absolutely. These days, Zaz and his team like to talk about their unwavering conviction in the long-term strategy, despite all the pain and suffering happening along the way—breaking some eggs, as John Malone put it the other day—but I don’t think any of them anticipated how hard this was going to be.
Remember, Discovery was a very minor player compared to WarnerMedia. I don’t mean to disparage past accomplishments, but running a television conglomerate made up of Animal Planet, Food Network, HGTV and a Polish news channel doesn’t exactly prepare you for the responsibilities of overseeing a major motion picture studio, a best-in-class premium channel and the world’s leading global news network, all while managing the pivot from linear to streaming against the backdrop of a recession. It’s a crash course for these guys, and I think we need to be open to the idea that they may be a little in over their heads. Their debt may be relatively cheap, but there’s still about $50 billion to service.
Zaz commands a lot of respect and a lot of reverence, and he’s often the only guy who engages with reporters on the rope line at Sun Valley, so there may be a reluctance by the press to be too critical of him. But if you just look at the scoreboard, there’s reason to be skeptical. Since the merger, WBD has underperformed the S&P 500 by more than 40 percent. And yes, every media company is down right now, but no one is down this much. And by the way, there’s reason to believe 2023 could be even harder for WBD. So I think things are about to get harder for Zaz before they get easier—if they ever get easier.
Zaz seems to believe this is merely a moment in time, and Mr. Market is just too shortsighted to see where he’s taking the company. But how do you overcome this debt load without stripping away everything that makes the company valuable in the first place?
Jon: While we’re on WBD, you noted a significant departure at CNN this week: Michael Bass, the longtime programming chief, is exiting at the end of the year. How significant is that?
Dylan: Very, actually. Since day one, Chris Licht has made a point of distancing himself from the newsroom and establishing a chain of command that runs through Bass. So he’s losing that conduit to the newsroom. But, more importantly, he’s losing someone with a deep understanding of how the business works. Licht’s biggest disadvantage at CNN isn’t just his lack of executive experience, it’s his lack of experience at CNN.
CNN is a uniquely complicated global media business in its own right, and there are only so many executives with a deep institutional knowledge of how it works. Most of the people have already left: Jeff Zucker, Andrew Morse, Rebecca Kutler. Now, he’s losing Bass, too, and Amy Entelis is probably bound for the exit within a year or so since Licht gutted her CNN Films division. So Licht, who is still struggling to learn the ropes of this business and rebuild trust with a restive newsroom, has few seasoned executives to lean on. Once Bass leaves, the recently promoted Virginia Moseley becomes the most important person in the room—and someone Licht probably can’t afford to lose.
Jon: C.E.O. troubles have been a hallmark of the past few quarters. Recently, you’ve been reporting on the situation inside The Washington Post Company, which can’t seem to evolve beyond its Trump era period of frenetic growth. Notably, the Post seems innately cognizant of its own challenges. Meredith Kopit Levien positioned The New York Times Company for a post-Trump world by gently pivoting it to be a purveyor of evergreen lifestyle content, and investing heavily in performance marketing. Under executive editor Sally Buzbee, the Post rarely resonates beyond the Beltway. And a blame game has ensued with fingers being pointed largely at C.E.O. Fred Ryan. What’s the latest?
Dylan: The overwhelming feedback I got after publishing Fred Ryan’s Re-Election is that I went too easy on him. There’s a lot of finger pointing going on at the Post these days, and most of it is directed toward him. Most people I talk to at the paper note that he’s very smart, hardworking, nice—they just don’t think he’s a bold or visionary leader, and they worry that the Post missed a massive opportunity because he was too complacent with the paper’s success in the Trump years. The second thing I hear a lot of is, “Where’s Jeff?” The Post’s expenses are a rounding error on his personal balance sheet, so if Jeff Bezos is truly committed to building a global media company to rival the Times, why doesn’t he roll up his sleeves and make some changes at the top? These are good questions, and I don’t have the answers yet.
For what it’s worth, Sally Buzbee has her detractors at the paper as well. Some people say she lacks a coherent vision for the paper’s editorial side, and that she makes Marty Baron look even better than Liev Schreiber did. I’d also note that it’s not a great look to be seen badmouthing the C.E.O. to colleagues, especially when he’s the guy who hired you. Anyway, my sense is things are pretty awkward at 1301 K Street right now.
So, on that note: Happy Thanksgiving.