ESPN Drives Disney Q4 Declines

Lower ad sales, affiliate fees push cable networks down
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Days after ratings measurement stalwart Nielsen said subscriber loss estimates doubled at flagship network ESPN in November – a number the sports leader disputed – the Walt Disney Co. may have some explaining to do, as its overall fiscal fourth quarter performance suffered from declines at its cable operations.

Nielsen said in late October that subscriber estimates at ESPN dipped by about 621,000 in November, double the previous loss of around 300,000. While the fiscal fourth quarter ends in September, the losses show that Disney’s problems not only are continuing, but could be getting worse.  

Overall, revenue at the entertainment juggernaut dipped 3% in the quarter to $13.1 billion and segment operating income declined 10% to $3.2 billion. The losses were fueled by declines at its Cable Networks unit -- revenue was down 7% to $3.95 billion and segment operating income dipped 13% to $1.4 billion, fueled by decreases at ESPN and the Disney Channel.

Disney said the decrease at ESPN reflected lower advertising and affiliate revenue and higher programming and production costs. Lower advertising revenue was primarily due to fewer impressions and lower rates.

Disney said the overall quarterly results are also impacted by comparisons to 2015, which had an extra week of operations, which the programmer called the Fiscal Period Impact (FPI).

The decrease in impressions was driven by the FPI, lower ratings and fewer units sold. Lower affiliate revenue was due to the FPI and a decline in subscribers, partially offset by contractual rate increases. Disney said increased costs were driven by Olympics programming internationally, the World Cup of Hockey rights and higher contractual rates for college sports, partially offset by the absence of costs for the British Open and a favorable FPI.

The decreases in operating income were driven by lower advertising and affiliate fees at ESPN and Disney Channel, and increased programming costs.

“We’re very pleased with our performance for the year, delivering the highest revenue, net income and earnings per share in Disney’s history,” said Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger in a statement. “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. 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.”

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