Making Streaming Work for Disney

Lori LeBas’s closer collaboration with distributors means better experiences for viewers
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NAME: Lori LeBas
TITLE: Senior VP, Affiliate Partnership Development and Operations
COMPANY: Disney and ESPN Media Networks
CAREER HIGHLIGHT: Led the effort to integrate the company’s networks with all of the major live streaming virtual MVPDs. Spearheaded adoption of Disney’s Watch products. Helped architect revised organizational structures within Disney’s Affiliate Sales and Marketing distribution team. Oversaw the global ad sales operations team responsible for all post-sales processes for television, digital and magazines, as well as the global affiliate operations team.
QUOTABLE: “Do it! What’s the best that can happen?”

Lori LeBas

Lori LeBas

Lots of people are talking about how TV is moving from traditional cable to streaming video. As senior vice president of affiliate partnership development and operations for Disney and ESPN Media Networks, it’s Lori LeBas’s job to make it all work.

LeBas has been in cable operations for 20 years, starting when the business was relatively simple with channels delivered via satellite and sent to homes via coax and set-top boxes. It’s a lot more complicated now.

“It’s really been fascinating to watch the evolution of the technology and also the evolution of how consumers have come to believe they should be in charge of their content viewing experience, that you’re not tethered to your TV anymore to watch what you want to watch,” LeBas said.

LeBas has been on the front lines, working with distributors to deliver an expanding array of Disney services, many on the streaming front. She’s spearheaded projects including the adoption of ESPN Watch, video-on-demand and integrating with the new virtual MVPDs.

That’s meant a lot more interaction with Disney development teams working on products like in-app experiences.

“It’s forced the distribution team to be much more connected and collaborative with parts of the company that we would have worked with before, but never to the extent that we’ve had to now,” she said. “It’s also made it infinitely more complicated and challenging and it’s also forced us to be much more engaged with our technical equivalents, our product equivalents at our distribution partners’ shops.”

LeBas’s team, for example, worked closely with Comcast to integrate ESPN3 into the Xfinity X1 platform.

“We value working with Lori and her team because we know that we’re going to be able to get something done that’s meaningful and it’s going to be done in a thoughtful way,” said Vito Forlenza, executive director of product management at Comcast Cable. “They were saying, ‘We want our fans to get the best experience possible from ESPN3 when they’re on X1.’ That sort of collaboration is wonderful and quite frankly I don’t really get that from everybody.”

Forlenza said the ESPN team gets that attitude from LeBas. And even when there’s a disagreement, “we have a calm conversation about the best way to achieve something.”

The ESPN and Comcast teams have gotten to be friends and bond every year by attending games the Eagles play in Philadelphia on Monday Night Football. “It’s just a nice way to celebrate the partnership,” Forlenza said. “We’ve taken behind-the-scenes tours. We’ve gotten on the field during pregame warmups. We’ve had obviously always great seats.”

LeBas’s work is also appreciated by the brass at Disney, including her boss Justin Connolly, who was recently promoted to president, media distribution.

“Lori is amazing,” Connolly said. “She is selfless and puts the interests of the company first. At the same time, she has a tight bond with so many people across the organization. Lori has solved so many problems it’s hard to keep track.

“She approaches the solution with a simple question: ‘What’s best for the business?’ She then patiently, calmly and persistently checks the series of options and questions against the overarching question. It’s so powerful to work like that.”

Funny story: LeBas hired Connolly at Disney. Connolly had been at Disney but left to get his MBA at Harvard. LeBas convinced him not to take a job offer from The New York Times and return to Disney as a director of ESPN’s contract administration team, so he could learn the details of the company’s deals. “There are many things I’m proud of in my career, but I’m going to take that one to the bank,” she said.

Giving Viewers ‘Instant Access’

Connolly also pointed to LeBas’s work on what the company calls “instant access.” It happens when a consumer who tries to watch something from Disney on an authenticated platform isn’t a subscriber. Instead of simply turning the consumer away, instant access provides a convenient pathway to sign up for a subscription to a virtual MVPD like YouTube TV or a traditional distributor like Comcast and start streaming right away. Disney has acquired about 500,000 subscribers that way, LeBas said.

“We know people are watching more and more television, more and more content, so let’s make it easy for them to do that if there’s something they want to see that would require a multichannel subscription,” she said.

Next up for LeBas is helping Disney’s distribution partners become third-party platform providers for its important streaming products ESPN+ and Disney+.

LeBas said there is a lot of interest in reselling those products among distributors. Also, that would “give people who want to consume as much content as possible from The Walt Disney Co. the chance to do that in one place,” she said. But again, that will be easier said than done.

In her off hours, LeBas said she’s a marathon runner and a yoga instructor. “Our son recently moved to Stockholm, so we’ll get chances to go to Sweden with some frequency,” she added. “Traveling is something we love to do, and we enjoy fine dining in these places that we visit.”

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