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Luv2Roam
09-13-2002, 10:23 PM
Disney Tries to Ease Concerns on ABC, Theme Parks
Fri Sep 13, 5:31 PM ET

By Derek Caney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co.'s top executives reassured analysts on Friday that the struggling entertainment giant was focused on boosting ratings at its ABC television network and that its theme parks were poised to bounce back when the U.S. economy recovers.

Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner and Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs, in New York to address investor concerns ahead of a key board meeting, provided little new information at an analysts meeting on Friday, some in attendance said.

Disney shares have been trading close to their lowest price since late 1994 amid concerns about the ABC network, which has slipped sharply in the ratings race since the popularity of its "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire ( news - web sites)" game show waned last year.

Disney's theme park business has been hit hard by the travel and leisure industry slump that followed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"Simply put, Disney needs to show earnings growth," said SoundView Technology analyst Jordan Rohan. "It needs to see market share gains at ABC. And it needs an improved geopolitical and economic picture to improve its theme park business."

Disney's Staggs told Reuters after the meeting that the company is focused on "improving ratings momentum" at ABC. "It's not going to happen overnight," he said. "It's going to take time, but we have tremendous talent and a strong slate for the fall."

He noted that its television station group was already showing signs of strength, helped in part by election year political advertising. He said spot prime-time advertising rates, known as scatter, were about 15 percent higher than rates garnered in the upfront -- advertising sold in advance of the coming fall season.

Disney disappointed investors last month when it said its theme parks business, the company's biggest single profit engine, was showing signs of softening following a steady improvement from post-Sept. 11 lows.

But Staggs said, "the theme parks business is ready to take advantage of an economic recovery when it occurs.

He noted that it was difficult to make specific projections on theme park attendance, because advanced bookings did not always correlate to actual attendance. Over the past year, actual attendance has exceeded advanced bookings, he said.

The company is expected to address many of those concerns at its next board meeting, scheduled for Sept. 24.

At that meeting, central topics for discussion are expected to include reducing the number of Disney board members, ensuring the independence of directors, a succession plan for Eisner, and a review of the company's strategic plan for the next few years.

Disney's shares closed unchanged at $15.50 on the New York Stock Exchange ( news - web sites) on Friday. The stock has lost about 25 percent since the start of the year.