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Walt Disney Co | DIS

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NYSE:DIS   Walt Disney Company (The)
The Walt Disney Company is reportedly exploring options to sell or find a joint venture partner for its India digital and TV business, reflecting the company's ongoing strategic evaluation of its operations in the region. The talks are still in the early stages, with no specific buyer or partner identified yet. The outcome and direction of the process remain uncertain. Internally, discussions have commenced within Disney's headquarters in the United States as executives deliberate on the most viable course of action. These deliberations signify the company's willingness to adapt and optimize its business operations to align with changing market dynamics. The Wall Street Journal reported on July 11 that Disney had engaged with at least one bank to explore potential avenues for assisting the growth of its India business while sharing the associated costs. This approach suggests a proactive stance by the company to explore partnerships or arrangements that can drive growth while minimizing financial burdens. While it is too early to ascertain the exact direction this exploration will take, the developments in Disney's India business warrant attention, as they may shape the future landscape of the company's presence in this all-important region.

The ongoing shift from traditional TV to streaming has placed Disney and its competitors in a costly and transformative phase. As part of this transition, Disney is actively cutting costs amid macroeconomic challenges that have impacted its advertising revenue and subscriber growth. CEO Bob Iger has been at the forefront of these changes, and his contract was recently extended through 2026 to allow him sufficient time to make transformative changes while strengthening the bench with future leaders of the company.

One of the key considerations for Disney is evaluating its portfolio of TV networks, including ABC and ESPN. Bob Iger has expressed a willingness to be expansive in assessing the traditional TV business, leaving open the possibility of selling certain networks while retaining others acknowledging that networks like ABC may not be core to Disney's new business model. ESPN, as a cable TV channel, is being approached differently. Disney is open to exploring strategic partnerships, such as joint ventures or offloading ownership stakes, to navigate the challenges faced by the sports network. CEO Iger, who had previously expressed pessimism about the future of traditional TV, has found the situation to be worse than anticipated since his return to Disney.

Although the linear networks segment, which accounts for Disney's TV properties such as ABC, National Geographic, FX, and FreeForm, has struggled to grow in the recent past, this segment is still an important part of the company's business, which is evident from the positive operating income reported by this segment in fiscal 2022. As below data reveals, the DTC business and content licensing made operating losses in FY 2022 which were offset by the operating income reported by linear networks. For this reason, investors will have to closely monitor a potential sale of TV assets to evaluate the impact of such a decision on Disney's profitability.

The broadcasting landscape is experiencing a significant shift, with uncertainties surrounding its future and the changing nature of consumer preferences. While linear television channels are not expected to disappear immediately, their consumption continues to decline as viewers increasingly favor OTT platforms. This transition represents a fundamental trend shaping the industry. In terms of business models, subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) services will continue to grow with targeted advertising.

As the ascent of streaming video continues, cable, satellite, and internet TV providers in the United States faced their most significant subscriber losses to date in the first quarter of 2023. Analyst estimates indicate a collective shedding of 2.3 million customers during this period. Consequently, the total penetration of pay-TV services in occupied U.S. households, including internet-based services like YouTube TV and Hulu, dropped to its lowest point since 1992, standing at 58.5%, according to Moffett's calculations.

In Q1, pay-TV services in the U.S. witnessed a nearly 7% decline in customers compared to the previous year, with cable TV operators experiencing a 9.9% decline, while satellite providers DirecTV and Dish Network registered subscriber losses of 13.4%. Virtual MVPDs, which are multichannel video programming distributors, also suffered significant losses, shedding 264,000 customers during the quarter. Comcast, the largest pay-TV provider in the country, lost 614,000 video customers in Q1, and Google's YouTube TV was the only tracked provider to experience subscriber growth, adding an estimated 300,000 subscribers during the period. These trends illustrate the challenges faced by the pay-TV industry, with factors like increasing sports-broadcast fees driving retail prices higher, leading to cord-cutting and subsequent price adjustments by distributors. By 2026, e-Marketer predicts that the number of non-pay TV households will surpass pay TV households by over 25 million.

In efforts to achieve profitability in the streaming business, Disney has implemented significant cost-cutting measures, including saving $5.5 billion through cost reductions and layoffs, and a focus on making Disney+ and Hulu more profitable. Disney aims to enhance Hulu integration, seeing it as a vital component of the company's transition from TV to a streaming-only model. Discussions are also underway for Disney to acquire Comcast Corporation's (CMCSA) stake in Hulu, as Disney currently holds 66% ownership. The company believes that the integration of Hulu and Disney+ will bolster the streaming business and contribute to its profitability. While the negotiations with Comcast over Hulu's valuation are ongoing, the combined offering of Disney+ and Hulu is expected to be available to consumers by the end of the calendar year. Although Disney's plans for ESPN+ and the fate of its other cable channels, such as the Disney Channel, remain uncertain, Bob Iger expects ESPN to eventually move to a streaming-only model, acknowledging the disruptive nature of the traditional TV business model.

The discussions surrounding Walt Disney's TV and streaming business in India come at a critical juncture for the company, as it grapples with intensified competition and significant challenges in the market. The emergence of Reliance Industries' JioCinema streaming platform has posed a considerable threat to Disney's dominance, especially after Reliance secured digital rights for the highly popular Indian Premier League cricket tournament. This strategic move by Reliance, which offered free access to the tournament earlier this year, caused a substantial decline in Disney+ Hotstar's subscribers, a popular streaming service under Disney's India business.

Additionally, Viacom18, which is backed by Reliance and Paramount Global (PARA), made a significant impact on Disney's market position in India. Through its partnership with Warner Bros, Viacom18 secured content rights to popular shows on HBO including Succession, previously aired on Disney's platform. This collaboration forms a formidable alliance challenging Disney's dominance in the Indian market. Reliance's freemium model poses the most significant threat to Disney's current position. By offering content for free on its streaming platform, JioCinema attracted a substantial number of subscribers through the broadcast of IPL. With its ample cash reserves, Reliance has the advantage of focusing on subscriber growth without immediately focusing on monetization strategies. The loss of streaming rights for the IPL, combined with a subsequent decline in paid subscribers, had a profound impact on Disney's reputation in India in the first quarter of this year, which could very well be the most challenging Q1 Disney has had in India for a long time.

A report on video consumption trends in India by Media Partners Asia sheds light on the dynamic landscape of the online video sector in India. For the 15 months that ended in March 2023, total consumption across the online video sector reached a staggering 6.1 trillion minutes. During this period, Disney+ Hotstar emerged as the dominant player in premium VOD, capturing 38% of viewing time. The report attributes Hotstar's success to its strong sports offerings and the depth of its Hindi and regional entertainment content.

During the survey period, Zee and Sony together held a 13% share of the Indian premium video sector viewing time. While the two companies are expected to merge pending regulatory approval, they are projected to operate independently for another year, benefiting from strong engagement across sports as well as regional, local, and international content. Prime Video and Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) collectively accounted for a 10% share of viewership in the premium VOD category. Prime Video also garnered a significant portion of viewership from regional Indian titles. The report emphasizes that local content dominates premium VOD viewership, particularly outside the sports category, while international content leads paid tiers. Catch-up TV is prevalent in the free tier across freemium streaming platforms.

Although Disney was the clear winner in 2022, this report highlights a significant shake-up in the market brought about by the transformation of JioCinema. JioCinema, which previously held a mere 2% share of the premium video market, experienced a major upswing in growth since April. This surge can be attributed to JioCinema's decision to offer free live streaming of the popular IPL cricket tournament, a property that was previously exclusive to Disney-owned media in India. Despite technical glitches impacting user experience, JioCinema witnessed a more than 20-fold increase in consumption in April 2023, enabling it to dominate the premium VOD category. The report raises questions about JioCinema's ability to sustain this growth and scale in the absence of IPL action after June 2023. That being said, this could be an early indication of growth challenges Disney-owned brands may face in India.

Star India, now known as Disney Star following the rebranding last year, is expected to experience a revenue drop of around 20% to less than $2 billion for the fiscal year ending September 2023. Additionally, EBITDA is projected to decline by approximately 50% compared to the previous year. Furthermore, Hotstar is estimated to lose 8 to 10 million subscribers in its fiscal third quarter as well.

Given the current scenario, finding an outright buyer for Disney's India business is expected to be challenging. When Disney acquired the entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox in 2019, the enterprise value of the Indian business was estimated at around $15-16 billion. This high valuation, coupled with the intense competition and declining subscriber base, presents a complex landscape for potential buyers or partners.

I believe Disney stock is attractively valued today given that the company's streaming business has a long runway for growth internationally while its brand assets will continue to drive revenue higher. As an investor, I am both concerned and curious about what the future holds for Disney's linear networks segment. Going by the recent remarks of CEO Iger, major changes are on their way. A strategic decision to divest non-core assets, in my opinion, will trigger a positive response from the market. That being said, a major divestment of TV assets could materially impact the company's profitability in the next 3-5 years until its streaming business scales enough to replace lost revenue from the linear networks segment. Investors will have to closely monitor new developments to identify a potential inflection point in Disney's story.
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