The Iger Mouseketeer Plot Twist

The reality that Bob Iger returned to was, of course, far more challenging than even he seemed to have anticipated. Photo: Jay L. Clendenin via Getty Images
Dylan Byers
August 2, 2023

It’s hard, but if you squint and look back you might still be able to see the moment, eight or so months ago, when a buoyant and characteristically polished Bob Iger returned to his throne at The Walt Disney Company and was greeted with a hero’s welcome. At the time, Iger’s mere presence seemed almost enough to stabilize a company that had been beset by a global pandemic, various systemic and macroeconomic forces, and the unprovoked missteps of his successor-predecessor Bob Chapek. Yes, Iger had warned of the “challenging times” ahead, and the need to take decisive action in order to reorient the business, but the boss was back, employees were overjoyed, the stock was up 6 percent.

The reality that Iger returned to was, of course, far more challenging than even he seemed to have anticipated. Before long, Iger associates started suggesting to me that the once smooth and self-confident C.E.O. seemed notably overwhelmed by the myriad headwinds he was facing—the streaming challenges, linear’s decline, Nelson Peltz, etcetera. In the infamous CNBC Sun Valley interview, Iger gamely tried to address his company’s hurdles head-on by hanging a “For Sale” sign on ABC and disclosing that ESPN was pursuing a strategic partner. (Alas, where better to market assets than the Lodge.) He also memorably stepped in it by accusing Hollywood’s striking writers of being unrealistic in their demands and disruptive in their deeds. In retrospect, it was yet another early indicator that Disney’s once imperturbable leader was a little more antsy this time around.

Of course, nothing seems like a greater admission of Iger’s vulnerability than the news that my partner Matt Belloni broke earlier this week: Iger has enlisted two of his former lieutenants and onetime heirs apparent, Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs, to consult him on the future of the company’s linear assets and how they intersect with its streaming strategy. “For now,” Matt noted, “Mayer and Staggs are merely consulting for Disney while continuing to run Candle,” their Blackstone-backed media holding company. Disney stock similarly jumped on the news of their re-engagement. And it was only a matter of time before people began wondering how long the arrangement might last, and whether it was, potentially, a game-changing moment for the company’s endless and ever-evolving succession plans.