Disney Falls Short of Earnings Projections for Second Time in Five Years

James Rainey
Variety

UPDATED: Disney missed quarterly financial projections on Thursday for only the second time in the last five years. The entertainment conglomerate posted fourth-quarter earnings of $1.10, 10 cents less than the prior year quarter and six cents behind analysts’ estimates.

Quarterly revenue also lagged slightly behind projections at $13.14 billion for the three months that ended on Sept. 30, compared to the forecast of $13.52 billion, which would have been in line with the fourth quarter in 2015. Disney has fallen short of analysts’ projections only twice in the last 20 quarters — in the second and fourth quarters of this year.

The shortfall was connected, at least in part, to declining performance at ESPN, the all-sports network that has powered Disney earnings for years, but has seen a decline in subscribers over the last three years. Revenue in the corporation’s cable networks, which include ESPN, dipped 7% for the quarter to $3.95 billion. Operating income took an even bigger hit, down 13% from the prior year to $1.44 billion.

A decrease in subscribers to ESPN meant falloffs in both advertising and affiliate revenues. That came at the same time that programming and productions costs were increasing — partly connected to this summer’s Olympic Games in Brazil and to broadcast of the World Cup of Hockey.

Disney shares dipped about 2.5% in after-hours trading, to $92.43 a share.

Despite the period’s shortfall, Disney posted annual earnings that were 11% ahead of those for 2015 — up to $5.72 per share.

Disney CEO Bob Iger deemed himself pleased with the yearly results, saying in a statement that the Burbank-based corporation had delivered its highest-ever revenue, net income, and earnings.

“Fiscal 2016 was our sixth consecutive year of record results, highlighted by the opening of Shanghai Disney Resort, the phenomenally successful return of ‘Star Wars,’ and our studio’s record-breaking $7.5 billion in total box office,” Iger said. “We remain confident that Disney will continue to deliver strong growth over the long-term as we further strengthen our brands and franchises, our technological capabilities, and our international presence.”

Disney’s financial reports have adhered to a striking pattern in recent quarters — with growth led by the filmed entertainment, and parks and resorts units, but concern mounting about the company’s media networks, particularly ESPN.

Disney’s film studio continues to best all its Hollywood brethren, churning out four hits this fiscal year that topped $1 billion at the worldwide box office and another film, “Jungle Book,” that fell just short of that mark, grossing of $966.5 million. “Finding Dory” and “Zootopia” went over the billion threshold, while”Captain America: Civil War” brought in $1.2 billion and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” bagged more than $2 billion.

The winning streak appeared to continue with the opening last weekend of another hit from Disney’s Marvel comic label — “Doctor Strange,” which had an initial worldwide haul of $340 million.

But no number of film hits can wash away ongoing concern among investors and analysts about ESPN. The leading sports broadcaster’s subscriber base peaked at 99 million in 2013 and has dipped an estimated 10 million, or more, since then.

When the number of subscribers drops, so does profitability, as ESPN attracts less in affiliate fees from cable companies and satellite broadcasters. Just last week, alarms were raised again when Nielsen reported that the sports network had lost 621,000 subscribers in a single month.

Disney called this an “anomaly” and said that the ratings service’s measurements were not discerning all of ESPN’s viewers. The sports channel takes in as much as $7.21 in affiliate fees for each subscriber, non counting ESPN’s supplementary networks, like ESPN2.

The subscriber slippage is critical because Disney cable networks, led by ESPN, produce roughly half of the operating income of Disney’s largest division, media networks. And those media networks, in turn, create more than half of the total corporate profits.

Disney has not been able to regain its 2015 highs — when DIS shares climbed to as much as $121 a share — largely due to concern about ESPN’s slippage.

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