Most Important Story of the Week – 21 February 20: Rumors! Bob Iger and Apple TV+ Edition

Sometimes, you really don’t need to overthink your weekly column. Thank you, Disney, and really Bob Iger, for making this easy.

Most Important Story of the Week – Bob Iger Steps Down

Bob Iger stepped down from his role as CEO of Disney on Tuesday, but will remain as the company’s chairman of the board. What else do we know for sure?

– Iger said he’ll stay on in an active role to guide and manage content.
– His replacement, Bob Chapek, has had roles throughout Disney, from studios to merchandise to theme parks.
– Iger has long been speculated to want to retire, but kept staying on, first to see the 21st Century Fox Acquisition, and then to see the Disney+ launch.

Everything else is speculation. And there was plenty in the aftermath of this genuinely surprising news. The question for this column isn’t what happened or why or what fun rumor to promote, but what it means for the strategic landscape

The Entertainment CEO Hype Cycle

I occasionally write about CEO departures, but usually not as the most important story of the week. Why not? Well, frankly, most CEOs are “average”. Their company is moving along before they get there, and will mostly continue after they leavd. (Unless, of course, you’re a CEO reading this. I think you’re above average. Definitely. This is about all those other CEOs.)

This is especially true for lower level executives. For example, Discovery hired a new DTC boss from Hulu, Hulu promoted a new president, and CBS rearranged programming execs at All-Access, but neither will get a mention in my “other contenders” section down below. (Again, unless you’re a lower lever exec. You’re above average. Definitely. It’s all the other ones I’m talking about.)

To be clear, this isn’t because CEOs aren’t important. It’s more a comment that I don’t think anyone is really good at accurately judging who is good or not. Especially via the Hollywood trades. When a new head of a studio is hired, one or multiple trades/important papers (roughly, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Deadline, NY Times, LA Times, Bloomberg and Wall Street Journal) writes a long in-depth article based around an interview with the executive. Their strengths are highlighted; their weaknesses minimized.

This makes sense. If you want to get Jen Salke to join your executive roundtable, you better talk her up right after she takes the job.

Then comes the downfall. Kevin Drum mentioned this on his blog a few weeks back and I’d call it the “candidate hype cycles”. UCLA political scientists have called this process in elections the “discover, scrutiny and decline” cycle. 

Image 1 - Hype Cycle

Well, the same thing happens with CEOs. They start, get tons of hype, and inevitably either fail or retire quietly. We could call it “hype, status quo and departure”. Like a politician, they have two paths at the end: If they get fired, you bury them; if they retire you celebrate their run.

Meanwhile, we never hear the bad things until they get fired or leave. For example, The Information revealed that Amazon hired Mike Hopkins was hired due to concerns about shows being late, over budget and, presumably, not that popular. Which would speak poorly of Salke, but again I’ve never seen a trade report that.

Every so often a CEO comes along though, who never loses the hype cycle. 

Value Over Replacement CEO

In the knowledge economy, the best workers aren’t just a little more valuable than their peers, but multiples better. The returns aren’t linear, but logarithmic. This applies to CEOs too; the best CEO isn’t just a little better than their peers, they are miles and miles better in terms of return on investment.

The best way to think about this, as I’ve written before, is the “Value over Replacement” concept from baseball and basketball. In basketball, this is LeBron James. His dominance is so much that singlehandedly he gave Miami and Cleveland championships and may do the same for the Lakers. As a result, he’s worth much more than any other player.

Let’s put this in a chart. Imagine every executive is ranked on a zero to 100 point scale. A fifty is the “average” employee or student or basketball player or CEO. The top is the 99th percentile employees, the one delivering outsized returns. The 1% are the folks who don’t just do average work, but actively damage your organization.

(And by the way, this is how I categorize every person I work/worked/could work with. At business school, since we did so many group projects, I was constantly scouting for who would help deliver outsized returns. Which made getting good grades easy. And yes this doesn’t apply to you if I worked with you. You were way above average. It’s about everyone else.)

This is how the chart would look. The percentiles are on the right; the returns on the left.

IMAGE 2 - VORCEO Chart

The question for Disney is…where is Bob Iger on that chart? Where is Bob Chapek?

The Disney Challenge

As I said above, I’m pretty brutally honest about where executives are on that “value over” chart and so often I’ve seen that when one executives gets replaced, despite all the internal worry, it usually ends up being about the same. So 95% of the time, say, if a CEO leaves a big company, since they were probably average, and their replacement will be average, everything will go on just the same. (Just usually paid more. See next section.)

Iger, was, though, firmly planted in the top 99%. Here’s Disney’s performance the last 20 years compared to the S&P 500. (He took over four years in to this chart.)

Image 3b DIS vs SP with Label

That’s an elite performance. And if like me you think stock performance isn’t the be-all-end-all, well, all the other narrative stuff from the acquisitions to the box office dominance to the pivot to streaming reinforces this. Iger was an elite CEO, which is a statement. Being top 1% of CEOs is supremely rare and valuable.

The challenge for Chapek is that no matter how good he is or isn’t, odds are he isn’t a 99% CEO. Just run the numbers: if we can’t predict how a CEO will turn out, then we have a “uniform distribution” meaning each outcome is equally likely. Therefore, Chapek has about a 1 in hundred chance matching or exceeding Iger’s performance. (That’s obviously why the board tried to cling to Iger for as long as possible.)

The Disney Nightmare Scenario

Does this mean the “end of Disney’s run”? Absolutely not. The situation Chapek is walking into is about as strong as you can get. Just being average means the company will be fine. If he’s slightly above average they’ll keep growing.

But every company has upside scenarios and downside scenarios, and the downside scenario feels a little more likely for me. If Chapek turns out to be worse than “average”, and there’s a fifty percent chance of that, then the company could regress.

But it could pair with four other potential risks:

– First, Lasseter turns out to be have been crucial for animation. (Like Frank G Wells was in the 1980s.) Arguably, since Iger moved Lasseter to Disney Animation, that side of the business rebounded. (Why might this not be true? Read Kim Master’s take here.) We’ll find out in about 1 to 2 years if this is true.
– Second, something happens to Kevin Feige. He runs the Marvel golden goose, If another company poached him, that would be “sub-optimal”.
– Third, streaming ins’t profitable and cord cutting accelerates. This your regular reminder that for all the value in parks and merchandise, uh, networks (specifically ESPN) actually powered Iger’s rise.

Screen Shot 2019-07-15 at 12.46.29 PM

– Fourth, the studios run out of creative energy on all the non-Marvel, Star Wars and animated films, having mostly coasted on remakes of classic Disney films. 

Those five risks could, to be clear, could not happen. And probably not all together.

But if I’m a Disney competitor, I’m happy with this news. I’d be optimistic that my studio/network/streamer has a chance to catch up to Disney. It’ll still be tough, but the chance is there.

Other Thoughts

– Is there another shoe to drop?
I have no idea. And based on all the reporting and speculation either way, I don’t think anyone knows anything. So your guess is as good as mine, so I’d guess status quo.

– What about the dual bosses structure?
I’m a little more concerned about this. Dual CEO structures are tricky. Sometimes a minor change like this can actually muck things up, more than the previous boss retiring and just exiting stage left. But we’ll see.

– Was Iger really that good?
Yes. I love hot takes as much as anyone. I’m one of the few folks who think that Plepler leaving HBO and then joining Apple could be the most overhyped stories of the year. But even I can’t with good conscious argue against Iger’s run.

That said, the context was also tremendous. While we rightfully praise Iger for his acquisitions, we sometimes forget that the real income driver in the 2000s was ESPN and it’s sky high sub-fee. (Look that chart just above!) Take that revenue/operating income from Iger and arguably he doesn’t have the cash for Marvel or Star Wars.

– If so many CEOs are average why do they get paid so much?
Bad oversight. Most corporate boards are fairly poor at actually identifying the value their CEOs generate. This is mostly to do with institutional structures. Even though they have average CEOs, they don’t realize it and pay them above average.

Data (?) of the Week – Apple TV+ Ratings?

In a few different conversations, I’ve been hearing that Apple TV+ is underperforming expectations. Honestly, even that isn’t strong enough. The ratings, the rumors imply, are so low that most observers wouldn’t actually believe it.

The challenge is to separate out the rumors that end up being completely false from those based on a nugget of truth. And fortunately, I spent some time doing this in a completely different field: military intelligence.

In intelligence, the hardest part is to manage “human intelligence”, meaning people. Specifically people who are usually betraying their country or allies and providing you information. The goal is to run a “source” who is well placed, so that they can provide a track record of accurate information. That builds trust.

Still, you only trust them so far. Even if one source tells you something, you always want to confirm it. Multiple sources is always better than one source. And ideally from multiple types of intelligence. So a good analyst pairs signals intelligence (tapping phones) with human intelligence (people telling you what is happening) with imagery and other analysis.

I trust the rumor mill in this case. And I wouldn’t pass this rumor on if I only had one source. Like I said, I’ve heard this in a few conversations and from folks I really trust. I know they’re hearing this from folks on the inside. (None of my sources come from Apple directly, in full disclosure.)

Still, that’s just human intelligence. Can we triangulate this? Sure. Take this “open source” intelligence from Bernstein Research via Bloomberg. According to their research, via analyzing Apple’s earnings report, fewer than 10% of eligible Apple customers signed up for Apple TV+, or about 10 million folks.

My rumor is about viewership specifically, but the two are correlated. If you only get 10 million folks to sign up in the first place, the available folks to watch the shows is just smaller. Similarly, if the content isn’t resonating or buzzy, then you won’t get folks to sign up. 

Moreover, the rumors I’m hearing are about recent viewership. As in since the new year started. The key driver there is, of the folks who signed up, how many hung around? Well, when in doubt, Google Trends…

IMAGE 5 -GTrend NFLX vs Dis vs ATV

In other words, this look at Google Trends implies that Apple TV+ has never quite had the brand resonance as either Netflix or Disney. Notably, this is just using search terms, which tells a slightly different story than this Google Trends look, by topic, which shows a Disney+ decline. Google Trends is just one measurement I use, and it can have some quirks that don’t capture the true underlying awareness.

For Apple TV+, I still think the name is clunky. Which may hurt it in Google searches. So let’s look for specific shows instead. In the rumors, I’m hearing that Apple is seeing a big decline since the launch. So look at this chart:

IMAGE 6 - G Trend without Mando

In other words, the decay is real. It’s a little slower than Netflix or Amazon series, because the weekly release still generates news stories when the series concludes, which you see in The Morning Show, but the decay is there. Worse, the new shows aren’t launching nearly as well as the initial batch and accompanying marketing spend.

And how do the Apple shows do compared to, say, The Mandalorian?

IMAGE 7 - G Trend with Mando

They disappear entirely.

This matches other metrics that are publicly available. Say what you will about IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, but the volume of reviews actually is fairly predictive of viewership. Not everyone leaves a review, but more viewed shows tend to have more reviews. Which makes sense. You can see the decline in popularity in Apple shows recently in reviews too:

IMAGE 8 - Ratings Data

Here’s my whole table if you want to see the by show look:

IMAGE 9 Ratings TableMaybe Amazing Stories comes out in April and completely arrests this slide. But Apple will have to rely almost entirely on paid marketing to get the word out since usage of their app seems to be low. Moreover, the biggest challenge is just that Apple TV+ won’t have a lot of shows for the rest of the year, if the lack of announced shows is to be believed. Here’s that table converted to chart form:

IMAGE 9 Count of Shows by Year

And that’s assuming a lot of the renewed shows make it by the end of 2020, which I bet doesn’t happen.

What Does this Mean for Apple’s Plans?

This week Tim Cook repeated that he’s not in the business of renting content. Apple TV+ is originals. That’s the brand.

This strategy doesn’t make sense. Netflix and Amazon had tons of licensed content to keep folks engaged while they built out originals. Disney+, HBO Max and Peacock will have loads of library content as originals ramp. Apple TV+ has none of that. So Apple needs to either ramp originals much more quickly than they are…or they need to rent some TV shows.

Here’s the analogy I’d use. Say about 25,000 people per night tune into Apple TV+. Using Michael Schneider’s annual look at cable channels, that means Apple TV+ is the El Rey Network. Which is bad. 

Would you buy a phone for the El Rey Network? Probably not.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story

A+E Networks signs a big licensing deal with Peacock

The definition of a conglomerate should be any firm so big you forget they own half of another big company. In this case, A&E Networks is a legitimate cable business, but Disney quietly owns half. Instead of licensing their highly viewed unscripted originals for Hulu, Peacock got the rights. This is another bold move for Peacock. They are leaning into broad content, which I respect. (The History content pairs well with Law and Order and Chicago series.) Meanwhile, Hulu seems increasingly falling into the prestige lane. This leaves a gap for Disney: they need a streaming service that’s broad, but not genre like Disney+. It should be Hulu, but they’re not making the moves for that.

Discovery May Launch a Streamer

Discovery had their earnings, which were overwhelmed by the surge of news about stock market declines. On the streaming side, they’re contemplating launching a streamer in the US later this year, while happy with their other efforts. So continue to monitor for now.

  1. Pardon my skepticism about Iger…but I think he resigned to protect himself from stormy seas ahead.

    I can’t decide though, how the former Disney CEO thinks Chapek will help him. Is it that Iger figures many of the company’s lines of business are going to tank and the Other Bob is the fall guy?

    Or does Iger figure his successor’s experience in the parks will be the core of Disney’s flywheel going forward? I’m leaning toward this one for now given that Bob #1 only had a couple years left on his contract.

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