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Disney's CEO and CFO Talk Streaming Services, Park Visitors' Deep Pockets, and Fox Acquisition

Beth McKenna, The Motley Fool

Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) reported its fiscal first-quarter 2019 results last week. The entertainment giant's revenue was flat compared to the year-ago period at $15.3 billion, while earnings per share (EPS) adjusted for one-time items slipped 3% to $1.84.

While these results may appear tepid at first glance, they were likely better than most investors expected given the tough year-over-year movie business comparison -- a reflection of that fact that December 2017 included the blockbuster release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, while 2018's quarter had no similar tentpole premiere. Indeed, Disney's top line slightly beat Wall Street analysts' consensus estimate of $15.18 billion, and its bottom line sailed past the the $1.55 per share they were expecting.

But the numbers in earnings releases only tell part of the story. Management's comments during earnings calls can often reveal key insights about a company's business prospects and strategy. Here are three things from Disney's Q1 call that you should know.

Young boy on man's shoulders watching fireworks with Cinderella's Castle in background.

Image source: Disney.

1. The direct-to-consumer streaming business is Disney's "No. 1 priority."

From CEO Bob Iger's remarks:

As you know, DTC [the direct-to-consumer business] remains our No. 1 priority. ... We remain focused on the programming as well as the technology to drive the success of our DTC business and we're thrilled with the continued growth of ESPN+. ...

ESPN+ now has 2 million paid subscriptions, double the number from just five months ago. ESPN+ operates on BAMTech's platform, which has proved to be reliably stable during peak live-streaming consumption, and easily handled the volume of more than half a million people signing up in a single 24-hour period.

The huge one-day surge in folks signing up for ESPN+, the company's sports-focused DTC streaming offering that launched in April 2018, occurred before the first UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships) Fight Night under Disney's new five-year rights deal. Iger noted that the company expects "the expansion of combat sports content on the streaming service to drive continued growth in the months ahead."

He went on to say that the same technology that powers ESPN+ will power Disney+, the broader streaming service that's slated to launch later this year. Content -- much of it unique -- will come from the Disney, Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm (Star Wars) brands. Iger also noted that the company looks forward to "leveraging National Geographic to provide even more unique content for Disney+" once the massive acquisition of Twenty-First Century Fox's entertainment assets is complete.

2. The movie studio division should be mega-powerful after the Fox acquisition closes.

From Iger's remarks:

I'd like to congratulate our studio for its 17 Oscar nominations, seven of which went to Marvel's Black Panther, including a historic nomination for best picture. Together, Disney and 21st Century Fox received 37 nominations, an indication of the creative potential of the combined companies[emphasis mine]

Disney's movie studios are already super successful, and Iger's remarks underscore how much more successful they should be once the Fox acquisition is complete. This deal could close any day now. 

3. Per capita spending at domestic parks jumped 7% year over year.

From CFO Christine McCarthy's remarks:

Attendance at our domestic parks was comparable to the first quarter last year. However, per capita spending was up 7% on higher admissions, food and beverage, and merchandise spending. Per room spending at our domestic hotels was up 5% and occupancy was up 3 percentage points to 94%. 

Disney's Marvel may make movies about superheroes, but the segment that has been the financial-growth superhero for some time now is its parks and resorts business (which, beginning in the just-reported quarter, is being called the parks, experiences, and consumer products segment). In fiscal 2017, it was the only segment that grew operating income year over year. In fiscal 2018, both the parks and studio entertainment businesses grew operating income, but parks directly added more to Disney's total profits -- and total profit growth -- than did the movie business. 

A per capita spending increase of 7% at the company's domestic parks is particularly impressive when you consider that the inflation rate in the U.S. for 2018 was only 1.9%, according to the Labor Department. Except for folks who live fairly close to the company's Florida and California parks, a trip to a Disney theme park is usually a rare and special treat. So it makes sense that many park visitors spend freely during their much-anticipated Disney vacations. 

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Beth McKenna has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.