Disney results shine, defends sports TV deals

Thu Nov 10, 2011 8:13pm EST

A view of the water tower at The Walt Disney Co., featuring the character Mickey Mouse, is seen at the company's headquarters in Burbank, California, February 7, 2011.  REUTERS/Fred Prouser

A view of the water tower at The Walt Disney Co., featuring the character Mickey Mouse, is seen at the company's headquarters in Burbank, California, February 7, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

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(Reuters) - Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) unveiled strong results that trumped Wall Street's expectations as advertisers spent more at cable networks like ESPN and consumers kept going to theme parks despite a rough economy.

The operator of networks ESPN and ABC, a movie studio and theme parks reported a better-than-expected 7 percent gain in fiscal fourth-quarter revenue and a 30 percent jump in net income, spurring a 2.5 percent gain in its shares.

The results reassured investors, some of whom had been nervous about the toll that economic uncertainty would have on consumer spending, and then on the world's largest entertainment, leisure and consumer conglomerate.

Disney has produced steady gains quarter after quarter under Chief Executive Bob Iger, who announced last month he will step down as CEO after March 2015. But it reported a rare revenue miss in its May results, and spooked investors again last quarter with warnings about higher costs at ESPN and other issues.

Going forward, Disney said it plans to replace NBA games with college basketball and other live sports programing as an NBA labor dispute drags on. Any decrease in ad dollars should be more than offset by savings from not having to pay rights fees for NBA games, Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo said.

"I do not believe it will affect us to the negative financially if the season in fact does not end up happening," Rasulo told analysts on a conference call.

Iger, meanwhile, defended a recent deal with the National Football League to keep "Monday Night Football" on ESPN through 2021 at a cost of about $1.9 billion a year.

"There's no question it was an expensive deal," Iger said. But he added the agreement provided long-term certainty of quality content to viewers and advertisers, plus expanded digital rights. The NFL "creates value for ESPN" and "grows customer engagement," Iger said.

He also said terms for soccer's World Cup and the Olympics "didn't meet our standards" and the company "couldn't justify the costs others paid for it."

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Calling his remaining tenure "not as brief as people suggest," Iger said a main goal was to take advantage of new technology to showcase the company's programing. "It's a huge strategic priority for us," he said.

Qaurterly results were generally solid across the company, showing strength at the media and theme park units that are sensitive to swings in the economy, analysts said.

"They were solidly in line on balance," said Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Tony Wible, adding the parks unit appeared "relatively healthy" despite concerns about consumer sentiment amid high unemployment and weak economic growth.

The parks and resorts group reported an 11 percent revenue gain to $3.1 billion.

Disney had been expected to show stronger results after rivals including Comcast Corp (CMCSA.O), Time Warner Inc (TWX.N) and News Corp (NWSA.O) reported gains propelled by a healthy advertising market.

The media networks unit, the company's largest which incorporates sports channel ESPN and the ABC broadcast network, posted a 9 percent gain in revenue to $4.8 billion.

The studio and entertainment division was the laggard among Disney's main business arms for the quarter, with revenue sliding 8 percent to just under $1.46 billion in the quarter. "The Lion King 3D" and "The Help" were hits but faced tough comparisons with last year's "Toy Story 3."

Revenue jumped 7 percent to $10.43 billion, exceeding estimates for $10.36 billion.

Net income for the quarter rose 30 percent to $1.1 billion. Earnings per share came in at 58 cents, ahead of analyst expectations of 54 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Disney shares rose 2.5 percent to $35.50 after hours on Thursday, up from an earlier close of $34.64 on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine, editing by Bernard Orr)

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