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After year of ‘fixing things,’ Bob Iger tells Disney employees his plans to reshape the company for the future

By Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — Bob Iger, neatly dressed in a gray suit and pressed white shirt, sans tie, strutted onstage Tuesday afternoon at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York City, greeting an anxious crowd of Disney employees assembled for his highly anticipated appearance.

The chief executive, now a year into his second act at the media conglomerate, was scheduled to address his troops at the annual company town hall — and Tuesday’s rendezvous was of particular interest to the Magic Kingdom denizens, given the number of candid comments Iger has made about the state of the company’s affairs.

Iger was accompanied by “World News” anchor David Muir, who joked toward the outset of the event, according to video I obtained of key portions of the discussion, that he thought it was a “pretty good sign” for the news division’s future he was asked to fill the role of event moderator. The joke, and nervous laughter that ensued, was a not-so-subtle nod to the uncertainty that has gripped ABC News and the company at large over the last several months after Iger publicly floated selling off some of Disney’s linear assets.

It’s, of course, not just ABC’s future that has been up in the air. Iger has had nothing short of a full plate since retaking the throne of the Magic Kingdom last year. He’s been tasked with repositioning ESPN in a direct-to-consumer future, reversing the company’s faltering creative engine (e.g. Marvel Studios’ public stumbling), navigating a tough advertising climate, bringing streaming service Hulu totally under the Disney umbrella, and slashing billions of dollars in costs.

Traversing such arduous terrain is difficult enough on its own. But it’s far more challenging while also being confronted with two historic work stoppages, of which industry-defining issues such as artificial intelligence were on the table during painstaking and marathon negotiations with Hollywood screenwriters and actors.

In short, it’s been a demanding 12 months for the legendary Disney chief — something Iger was not shy about. As Iger put it while acknowledging 2023 has been more difficult than he predicted, it has just been “one of those years.”

“I knew that there were myriad challenges that I would face coming back,” Iger said. “I won’t say that it was easy, but I’ve never second guessed the decision to come back, and being back still feels great.”

Iger told the Disney employees that over the past year, he has spent a great deal of time “fixing things.” But now, Iger said, he wants to spend the next year building a modern version of the Walt Disney Company: One that can endure into the future. He noted, “Building is a lot more fun than fixing.”

That is, without a doubt, true. But it is still unclear what Iger would like to do with some of the company’s declining television assets, namely ABC. Is selling off such assets still in the cards? Iger downplayed the possibility but isn’t ruling it out, which suggests that if the right offer comes along, he might be willing to part ways with parts of the portfolio on the downward trend.

But after stunning staffers at the Disney-owned networks earlier this year by saying aloud that the outlet “may not be core” to the company moving forward, it is notable that Iger’s public comments have shifted a bit. Lately, he’s been talking up the importance of one particular linear asset, ABC, perhaps signaling that he wants to keep the terrestrial giant in the Disney fold.
And that trend of talking up ABC continued on Tuesday.

Iger, however, was not shy about saying that Disney is “trying to migrate these [linear] businesses onto the new business model.” And he acknowledged that Disney leadership is looking “at the future” of its entire portfolio, examining whether various assets can grow. “Will they stay the same or will they possibly decrease in value?” Iger asked. “And if so, what should we do about it?”

Iger, however, spoke very positively about ABC News in his discussion with Muir. He noted it has been “in one way or another” part of his “executive life since 1993.” He stressed that he is a “believer in the future of news.” And he praised ABC News for its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war.

When Iger later handed over the floor to Dana Walden, the co-chair of Disney Entertainment that oversees the network’s business, she spoke more broadly about the benefits of having a network like ABC within the Disney portfolio.

“What we’ve discovered is that our linear channels are very deeply embedded in our streaming strategy,” Walden said. “They want to watch live shows, sports, live events — they want to watch them in time period, and the place you can do that, for the most part is on linear channels … The notion of a communal event still exists largely on linear.”

On the ESPN front, network boss Jimmy Pitaro laid out a carefully planned transition the sports mammoth is preparing to make to streaming. He said ESPN, which prints mountains of cash for Mickey Mouse, is continuing to conduct research into its offering, “looking at things like timing” and “price point.” Pitaro maintained that customers will still be able to access ESPN by way of a traditional cable or satellite packages.

Pitaro said that ESPN is “talking to potential partners,” though he didn’t specify which ones. But he said that they are looking at partnerships “through lenses like technology, marketing, and then also content,” explaining that on launch day he wants “maximum distribution” and “the best portfolio of content we possibly can.”

The onstage discussion amongst Iger and his executive team covered considerable ground, oscillating between a number of topics, including Disney’s recent challenges at the box office and the company’s streaming plans, which include housing content from Hulu and Disney+ under one roof.

But through it all, Iger did his best to strike an optimistic tone and breathe hope into a workforce that has probably seen morale in a better place than where it sits today.

“I’ve been through some difficult times and faced a lot of adversity as a company,” Iger told Disney employees, “and I know that each time we get through it.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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