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Bob Iger got Disney into the streaming wars, so what happens once he’s gone?

With a new CEO in place, all eyes are on Disney’s crown jewel

Photo: Disney

Between 2006 and now, Disney spent around $100 billion to become the unbeatable giant it is today, snapping up Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, BAMTech, and 21st Century Fox. While the acquisitions were made as the result of teamwork across a number of divisions, they were mostly led by two people: Bob Iger, who was CEO up until Tuesday, and Kevin Mayer, head of Disney’s direct-to-consumer division and the man in charge of all things streaming. Now, with Iger preparing to leave by the end of 2021, all eyes are on what comes next for Mayer.

Mayer helped develop Disney’s current streaming landscape and was largely seen as the company’s heir apparent. So it came as a surprise to many when Disney announced its parks head, Bob Chapek, would be the next CEO.

Mayer knows streaming better than anyone besides Iger — certainly better than Chapek, who’s never worked with the direct-to-consumer vertical. Disney needs to chart a smooth course as competition heats up, its global rollout continues, and it builds out Disney Plus, ESPN Plus, and even Hulu. But with Iger leaving and Chapek getting the CEO position, there’s growing concern around one big question: what happens if Mayer leaves?

A former Disney executive told The Verge that “anytime there is a CEO transition, whether it’s a formal or informal breakup, the losers in the bake-off tend to leave.” It’s happened before. In 1994, former Walt Disney Studios head Jeffrey Katzenberg (now head of Quibi) thought he would become second-in-command to then CEO Michael Eisner, and therefore in the running for CEO. Instead, he was passed over in the wake of former chief operating officer Frank Wells’ death, and left the company months later. In 2016, Tom Staggs, a chief financial officer turned parks head turned chief operating officer, left when it was made clear he wasn’t going to be CEO.

“My guess is that he won’t stay,” the executive told The Verge. “My recommendation is they do whatever they possibly can to keep him.”

A work in progress

Disney’s streaming strategy is off to a strong start, but the company has already hit some major roadblocks. Production issues have affected a few high-profile original shows, executive changes are occurring at Hulu, product teams are still being integrated throughout BAMTech as teams work on ESPN Plus and Disney Plus and, perhaps most importantly, Disney Plus’ identity is still being formed.

Iger and Mayer are the best people in the know on what comes next, but Iger won’t be at Disney in 22 months’ time. Disney’s new CEO doesn’t have experience with streaming, and it’s an area that Iger has routinely called the future of the company. It’s not a self-running, autonomous paradise yet, like many other parts of Disney have become.

The first problem is building out a steady stream of shows for Disney Plus. One of Disney Plus’ most anticipated Star Wars series, an Obi-Wan spinoff, is facing major rewrites and delays. There were also rumors that Hawkeye, a series based on Jeremy Renner’s Avengers character, was facing production issues, although Disney representatives told me the show is still on its schedule. And outside of Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar originals, there are only three other scripted Disney Plus originals in development — a Proud Family reboot, a Turner & Hooch series, and a Mighty Ducks spinoff.

While Disney is trying to fix those issues, there also seems to be confusion over what is a Disney Plus title and what belongs on Hulu. Two series originally produced for Disney Plus — High Fidelity and Love, Victor — moved to Hulu after being considered inappropriate for Disney’s PG audience. A third show, Lizzie McGuire, is undergoing similar issues, according to the former showrunner. Actress Hilary Duff hinted at ongoing problems with the show, whose production is currently stalled, similar to Love, Victor.

Production issues are unavoidable, and cementing an identity takes time. It took HBO a long time to become the version of HBO people know the network as today. But Disney’s streaming division is far from being in a state of smooth sailing despite the company seeing massive subscriber growth on Disney Plus, Hulu, and ESPN Plus. (Hours before Disney announced Chapek as the new CEO, Hulu instated a new CEO as well.)

It’s dizzying trying to keep track of it all. With Iger not planning to stick around for too much longer, Mayer is one of the only people at the executive level with a firm understanding of what needs to happen next. Ensuring that Mayer, who has overseen the acquisitions of every major Disney franchise and has handled the launch of every streaming product, stays is seen by some as crucial. It’s a fact that Disney’s board is “keenly aware of,” according to Brian Stafford, CEO of Diligent, a leader in the corporate governance space.

“It takes more than one executive to run the business,” Stafford said. “The board is going to try and do whatever they can to retain their most strategic executives. You always worry about resignations of executives after a succession. I would be shocked if the board didn’t have many, many conversations just about talent, and what the talent looks like, and what the opportunities are. This is among the most important decision the board will make.”

The colloquial streaming wars are just heating up. Disney is one of the biggest players in the space. Disney Plus is set to launch in the UK and other territories in just a few weeks, and Disney is looking to add a significant batch of new subscribers on top of the stunningly impressive 28 million its accrued domestically. The company is trying to bring its streaming platforms to international markets — that includes Hulu and ESPN Plus.

Mayer lacks a number of qualities that Chapek has when it comes to being CEO. He never managed a big team up until recently, he doesn’t have much operational experience, he didn’t work in the programming divisions, and he has a reputation for being brash. He’s also regarded, however, as someone who sees potential where others don’t. Former Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel told The Wall Street Journal in 2019, “Kevin got it when most everyone still didn’t.” When Disney completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Iger told investors on a call that the deal “wouldn’t be possible without Kevin’s unbelievably hard work.”

It’s not like Disney is suddenly going to start doing poorly. Disney is in fantastic shape, but again, streaming is a marathon, not a sprint. Iger is sticking around to help Chapek learn the ropes of being a CEO, and also focusing more heavily on creative projects. That’s good — but having someone like Mayer who can continue running Disney’s streaming division the way he and Iger planned to for years is crucial to building the empire even more.