Disney tops earnings forecasts as Iger sets 'building' phase

FILE PHOTO: Toy figures of people are seen in front of the displayed Disney + logo, in this illustration

By Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -Walt Disney exceeded Wall Street's earnings expectations on Wednesday as higher attendance at its Shanghai and Hong Kong theme parks offset a decline in advertising revenue at television network ABC.

Shares of the entertainment company rose 3% in after-hours trading to $87.14, signaling investor confidence in Chief Executive Bob Iger's aggressive cost-cutting, the company's better-than-expected streaming subscriber gains and Iger's declaration that Disney had moved into a "building" phase again.

The company also plans to ask its board to reinstate a dividend payment to shareholders by the end of 2023, interim Chief Financial Officer Kevin Lansberry said.

For the fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 30, Disney reported adjusted per-share earnings of 82 cents, topping an average forecast of 70 cents, according to LSEG data. Quarterly revenue of $21.2 billion was largely in line with consensus estimates.

The company said it added nearly 7 million Disney+ streaming subscribers in the quarter, with the inclusion of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" and the original series "Star Wars: Ahsoka." Disney+ and Disney+ Hotstar together boast 150.2 million subscribers, ahead of Visible Alpha's estimate of 147.4 million.

"Our results this quarter reflect the significant progress we've made over the past year," Iger said in a statement. "While we still have work to do, these efforts have allowed us to move beyond this period of fixing and begin building our businesses again."

Disney now says it is on track to achieve $7.5 billion in annualized savings, as it aggressively manages costs.

The 100-year-old entertainment giant is once again under pressure from activist shareholder Nelson Peltz, whose Trian Fund Management is expected to seek board seats. Trian had pushed for one board seat in January, but ended its proxy fight a month later, after Iger laid out restructuring plans aimed at saving $5.5 billion.

Trian had no immediate comment on Disney's earnings report.

The company's results "clearly underline a razor-sharp focus on efficiencies across the board while focusing on content," said PP Foresight analyst Paolo Pescatore. "This is in stark contrast to other traditional rivals who lack the same scale as Disney in this new streaming driven world."

Earlier on Wednesday, Warner Bros Discovery shares tumbled 19% after the company said the effects of two Hollywood strikes and a weak advertising market could hamper earnings into next year.

Film and television writers ratified a new three-year contract in September, ending their 148-day work stoppage, but members of the SAG-AFTRA actors union have been on strike since July, roiling the industry's 2024 film slate and depriving media companies of new programming to sell.

Insider Intelligence analyst Paul Verna said he "would caution against the narrative that Disney is an outlier."

"This is only one quarter, and the disruptive effects of the actors' strike, the economy, and the competitive landscape in the traditional media and streaming businesses all play differently across the major players," Verna said.

Quarterly losses across Disney's streaming services, which also include Hulu and ESPN+, narrowed to $387 million from $1.47 billion a year earlier, due to pricing increases and higher ad revenue. Disney said its streaming business remains on track to reach profitability by September 2024. The company plans to start offering a beta version of a combined Hulu and Disney+ app in December with a full launch in the spring, Iger said.

Disney's newly named Experiences group, which includes its theme parks and resorts, and cruise lines and consumer products, reported nearly $1.8 billion in operating income in the quarter, up 31% from a year ago. Higher attendance at Shanghai Disney, Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland resorts, and growth of the cruise businesses, helped offset lower results at Walt Disney World in Florida.

Disney's Entertainment unit, which includes its television networks, its films studio and its Disney+ and Hulu services, posted operating income of $236 million in the quarter, compared with losses of $608 million a year ago.

ABC network and Disney's owned TV stations reported a drop in advertising revenue amid declining viewership. The summer movie "The Haunted Mansion" underperformed, compared with last year's "Thor: Love and Thunder."

The company's sports business, which includes Disney's ESPN-branded television channels, its ESPN+ streaming service and the Star-branded sports channels in India, reported operating income of $981 million, up 14% from the same period a year ago.

The results reflected lower programming costs, as ESPN walked away from renewing its contract with the Big Ten college football conference. The unit was also helped by a rise in subscription revenue from ESPN+, as the result of a price increase and subscriber gains.

Iger said ESPN delivered its best overall viewership in four years, and its highest viewership in the 18-to-49-year-old demographic prized by advertisers. He said the company is seeking partners as it prepares to transition ESPN to streaming.

"We've engaged with a number of different entities," Iger said. "I can say that there's significant interest out there."

(Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski and Lisa Richwine in Los AngelesAdditional reporting by Chavi Mehta in BengaluruEditing by Peter Henderson, Sayantani Ghosh and Matthew Lewis)