Web Failure Is What Keeps Disney Down
The Street 11/13/06

Web Failure Is What Keeps Disney Down

Did Disney really have that bad a quarter? This company's been pummeled after its quarter. It makes little sense to me on 13% growth and 18 times earnings. That's pretty chary.

One theory is that there's no more upside, that prime-time television costs too much -- even though Disney is winning that battle -- and you can't ever make as much money as you used to in prime time. That's the NBC theory. NBC announced that it's cutting the hours of prime time because the costs can't be justified. The winner of the prime-time wars these days makes about half of what it used to a half decade ago, or so the theory goes.

I like this theory, but the problem with it is that Disney has a fabulous and envious protection plan in movies, which can blunt any slowdown from TV. These guys are really good at movies, and the animated movies are cheaper to produce than TV shows and have a great record.

Another theory is that Disney can't get much more out of the theme parks. This one I'm not buying because I believe that there's plenty of room for theme parks to expand. And Disney is expanding them.

A third theory holds that Disney has had to spend too much to maintain share in ESPN. I find the spending to be a short-term issue. ESPN is still the least TiVo'd game in the room, meaning its viewers actually watch all those ads instead of blitzing past them.

What's really going on here? I keep coming back to the exact same theory that haunts all media: Google. This company is sapping all that is good about the media. And what Google isn't sapping, the Web is. The time may not be too distant when no one ever has to watch a commercial again. No one.

It didn't help, not one bit, that Disney said it has no payback for its years on the Web. It can do all it wants to link sites, do fantasy leagues off ESPN and make funny links to movies and TV programs. Who cares?

That doesn't mean Disney's stock is done. It does mean the company will have to go up slowly over time as it seeks ways to combat or coerce the Web.

I have to tell you, as someone who worked with Disney way back when, when it could have owned the Web -- few companies had a more forward approach to the Web in 1996, when they were our partners here at TheStreet.com -- this admission that nothing is going to pay off for Disney's Web efforts near-term is downright shocking. Defenseless against the Web, expenses still going higher -- that's a recipe for a challenged stock that may have to digest its gains for some time.
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