It’s been a rough summer for Disney CEO Bob Iger. Haunted Mansion just became the latest in a string of box office flops. Iger has been vocally criticized by Hollywood A-listers for his tone-deaf words about the actors’ and writers’ strikes. The stock has been languishing near 52-week lows even as the broader market has bounced back. There are “rumors” swirling that Iger plans to sell Disney outright to Apple (biggest air quotes possible around rumor).
Nothing suggests the Walt Disney Company is on the precipice of a big turnaround under Iger, who was brought back to right the ship. He has already found that Cleaning Up Chapek’s Costly Catastrophes is proving more difficult than first thought. During a recent wide-ranging CNBC interview, Iger conceded as much, admitting that the challenges facing Disney are greater than he had anticipated.
Although Iger has claimed that he is “quite pleased” how much Disney has accomplished in a short period of time, he also noted that there are a lot of challenges; the market has to cooperate and post-COVID recovery remains ongoing. He went on to say that he’s “extremely optimistic” about the company, and more or less laid out a road map for Disney’s future that includes selling linear TV networks, finding a strategic partner for ESPN, acquiring a full stake in Hulu, and expanding the theme parks.
Some good news on those fronts as industry insider Matthew Belloni is reporting in Puck News that former Disney executives Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs have both been engaged by Disney to consult with Iger, ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro, and others on the future of the Disney’s linear properties and how they intersect with Disney’s streaming strategy. For those unfamiliar with the names, both Mayer and Staggs were previously heirs apparent to the Disney throne, and likely CEO-successors at different points in past Iger retirement timelines.
Most recently, Disney passed over Kevin Mayer for the CEO role when Iger left abruptly in early 2020, prompting Mayer to depart Disney and take a short-lived CEO role with TikTok. Mayer got dealt a bad hand in both situations–it was truly a matter of poor timing and bad luck that he bounced out of both companies when and in the way he did.
Disney’s decision was confounding given Mayer’s success in launching Disney+ and the company’s future in streaming media, but Iger’s resignation was so sudden that Chapek was arguably better prepared and suited for the CEO position. At least, that was the thinking at the time. History now suggests otherwise.
I’ve re-read that at least a half-dozen times in the last year, each time there are fresh rumors or news about Iger or Staggs. To this day, it’s still unclear whether it was just Disney’s Board of Directors, or the them and Iger who previously lost faith in Staggs. There are little kernels in there that, with the benefit of hindsight and new information, can take on different meaning.
At the time that was written, it seemed fairly obvious that Iger had been a champion of Staggs and lobbied for him despite the board’s misgivings. Subsequent events, including Iger’s many succession-planning failures and extensions, as well as the board reportedly wanting Staggs back, suggested that maybe Iger had been able to ‘massage’ the message of the article into one that was subtle more “pro-Iger.” (It wouldn’t be the first or last time.)
Fast-forward to today, and Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs are now running the Candle Media startup together. That is, as the name suggests, a media company. Candle Media is a next-generation content company with a portfolio (thanks to its own aggressive acquisitions) of independent studios and creator-driven brands. The output ends up all over the place, everywhere from more “traditional” locations like Netflix to more “emerging” ones like TikTok.
In 5 Businesses Disney Should Buy or Sellwritten in the days following Iger’s return last year, I suggested that Disney should acquire Candle Media. It’s possible that their startup itself has value for family-friendly content and a pipeline into emerging media, but I cannot speak to that. From my perspective, it was/is all about the talent acquisition of Mayer and Staggs.
TheWrap has further corroborated the reports that Mayer and Staggs are advising Iger on linear divestiture and streaming strategies, while also stating that Candle Media is expected to be sold within the next few years. Unsurprisingly, Disney is the single most likely purchaser for the startup.
For me, the Staggs-Mayer duo serving as co-heads of Disney is a dreamlike scenario, and one that could have an Eisner-Wells dynamic. I first wrote about this even before Iger returned, but recognized it was likely “bad fanfic” given the circumstances. Chapek’s contract had just been extended and there was no reason to believe he was going to be replaced, despite doing an objectively awful job.
Or it seemed like bad fanfic…until Chapek was fired and subsequent revelations came to light that Disney’s board actually approached Staggs and Mayer to return to Disney to be co-CEOs. At that point, the return of Mayer and Staggs moved from “bad fanfic” to “implausible wishful thinking.”
Even though the board had approached them, it wasn’t clear whether they’d even want to return to Disney after their ousters or whether Bob Iger would be willing to work with them. As mentioned above, it’s unclear on what terms Iger, Staggs, and Mayer parted ways, and whether any bad blood existed among the men.
If Puck’s reporting is accurate, it would seem to confirm Stewart’s original reporting from back in 2016 about Staggs’ departure being driven by the board; that he really was the chosen successor of Iger. It would also suggest that Mayer was simply a victim of poor timing. Or that, at the very least, that time heals all wounds and the relationship has been repaired.
It’s tough to assess from the outside looking in, but I’m now inclined to believe the former. If Iger didn’t like Mayer or Staggs, he wouldn’t be working with them. If they felt betrayed by Iger, they’d have no incentive to help on a dead-end consulting gig.
The “time heals all wounds” explanation would work for Mayer and Staggs being cordial with Iger at a Brentwood cocktail party. That’s not a plausible explanation for them helping the CEO sell-off underperforming media assets to help cement his own legacy. There’s gotta be more to this.
It’s probably already obvious where we’re going with this, but in case not, this rumor is far less significant in and of itself than for its bigger picture implications. At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that Disney is going to divest itself linear television networks. It’s just a question of which ones, to whom, and for how much.
As Disney Parks fans first and foremost, the inevitable answers to all of those questions are immaterial to us. I suppose I want more linear properties to be sold and for the highest possible amounts, if only because that means reducing Disney’s debt load faster and, at least in theory, pivoting to the promised blockbuster theme park projects faster.
After all, there are plans for $17 billion investment at Walt Disney World and expansion as part of DisneylandForward in California. We’re standing on the precipice of another “Disney Decade” for the theme parks…as soon as the company is in a position to devote the CapEx necessary to it. But otherwise, I couldn’t care less what happens with ABC, Freeform, FX, NatGeo, etc.
From our perspective, the more significant implications concern succession planning. Earlier this year, Disney made former Nike CEO Mark Parker the new Chairman of the Board and, perhaps more importantly, the head the newly created Succession Planning Committee of the Board. This will advise the Board of Directors on CEO succession planning, including review of internal and external candidates.
More recently, the board extended Bob Iger’s contract by two years, and he will continue to serve as Chief Executive Officer through December 31, 2026. As we pointed out in our extensive commentary to that decision, this was an inevitability to anyone who was paying attention, both because of the tremendous turmoil in the legacy media space and the practical reality that there are no suitable successor CEO candidates who been properly prepped to take the helm by the end of next year.
Previously, CFO Christine McCarthy’s name appeared atop the list of five talked-about candidates for the future CEO job. She’s now gone. That list also is/was rumored to have included Dana Walden, Disney’s television chief, and Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park chairman. Previous reporting suggests that the board doesn’t view either candidate as “quite ready” for the role.
In prior posts, this blog has been unabashedly favorable towards Josh D’Amaro. We’ve defended his recent inaction on the basis of his hands being tied and budgets being limited; we’ve heard from plenty of past colleagues who say he’s the real deal and truly “gets” Disney. That remains our perspective, but with each passing month that D’Amaro fails to do anything of substance to impress, our position admittedly becomes less tenable.
We’d still love to be vindicated on our defense of D’Amaro, but can also accept being wrong and backing the wrong horse. There’s also the practical reality that D’Amaro doesn’t have experience on the media side of the business. Even if he ends up becoming a great Parks Chairman, he may not be cut out to be Disney CEO.
The good news is that, as much as we’ve championed D’Amaro, we’d be even happier with Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer as the future heads of Disney. As mentioned above, this would be a potential Wells-Eisner scenario. The two are collectively very well-rounded, with Staggs having a tremendous amount of Parks & Resorts experience. Much of the last decade-plus of successful projects at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and in the international parks were set into motion under Staggs’ leadership.
The Walt Disney Company’s Board of Directors also believes that Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer are ready for the role(s). That much is obvious given that the board attempted to bring Staggs and Mayer back last year. That plan was rumored to have been abandoned because it would’ve required acquiring Candle Media, and there was no way to accomplish that with Chapek as CEO.
Obviously, the circumstances are now different. Iger knows that the clock is ticking and is actively looking for his replacement(s). He also knows that his legacy will be defined in large part based on succession-planning, and legacy is of the utmost importance to him. Iger has every incentive to set his successor(s) up for success this time, cleaning up past mistakes and well-positioning the next leader(s) of Disney. Basically, their success is his success; their failures are his failures. Iger knows that this time.
If this rumor is true, it would seem that the stars have aligned for a return of Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs. They are obviously on board. Iger is on board. Even the board is on board. Even if it’s “only” advising at this point, that doesn’t happen if the logical and anticipated end point isn’t something more.
What do you think about Disney bringing back Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer to consult on the company divesting itself of linear TV networks and streaming strategy? Who do you think will be CEO of the Walt Disney Company on January 1, 2027? Will it be Bob Iger (still), Christine McCarthy (somehow), Tom Staggs, Kevin Mayer, Josh D’Amaro, or none of the above? Who should it be? Thoughts on anything else discussed here? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the Walt Disney Company’s future? Think things will get better in 2024-2025? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!