Disney Decides to Disrupt Before Being Disrupted

By Markets Fool.com

Image source: Disney.

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Investors are ready to overlook the present shortcomings at Disney (NYSE: DIS). Shares of the media giant moved slightly higher on Wednesday -- up 1.2% on the day -- despite posting quarterly results that were uninspiring where it matters most. Disney's media networks division posted flat operating profit growth on decelerating top-line gains and its theme parks continue to suffer from declining attendance.

This is the kind of report that would've crushed Disney a year ago, and in fact that's just what happened during last year's fiscal third quarter. The stock plunged 9% the day following that summertime earnings report, and that was with Disney World attendance still inching higher and media networks chiming in with 5% year-over-year growth. Media networks -- its largest of four segments accounting for 45% of the revenue and 54% of the operating profit through the first nine months of this fiscal year -- clocked in with just 2% top-line growth this time around.

The market's giving Disney a pass for now. A good reason for this is that the stock was trading 26% lower now than it was ahead of last year's report. Disney stock actually hit an all-time high just hours before posting last year's fiscal third quarter financials. Another good reason for the stock inching higher this time is that Disney is making waves to embrace cord cutters.

It's a great big beautiful streaming tomorrow

Disney announced this week that it's taking a 33% stake in BAMTech, a consumer-direct provider of streaming services that was originally formed by Major League Baseball. Disney will pay $1 billion for a third of the fast-growing platform with nearly 7.5 million subscribers.

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Investing in BAMTech will be one more way for Disney to reach out to cord cutters for its ESPN juggernaut that peaked in popularity for conventional cable and satellite TV subscribers years ago. It will also be another way to extend the relevance of its lesser cable properties.

Millennials kissing their fat cable bills goodbye have been portrayed as challenging to ESPN, but it's naturally also leading to lower subscribers for its many other networks. It's not just Disney Channel, ABC, and the various ESPN spinoffs that now include the SEC Network under the media giant's watch. Disney also the recently rebranded ABC Family as Freeform and other Disney Channels including Disney XD and Disney Junior to maintain.

It's on that front that Disney announced this week that it's partnering with AT&T (NYSE: T) to back another over-the top streaming service. AT&T's DirecTV has DirecTV Now, and Disney announced that it will feature many of its popular and not-so-popular networks on AT&T's streaming TV platform.

Mixed views on Wall Street

Disney isn't afraid to be disruptive, even if it means encouraging more conventional pay TV customers to cut the cord. ESPN may be the most expensive channel on any bundled pay TV service -- and a way to shoehorn many of its less-watched properties into chunky bundles -- but trends don't lie. Folks want cheaper streaming platforms where they pay only for the channels they actually watch, and that finds Disney striking deals with Sling TV and now AT&T's DirecTV Now.

Analysts were mixed on Disney's report. Macquaire upgraded the stock -- boosting its price target from $95 to $110 -- with the BAMTech stake as a big reason for the attitude adjustment. Macquarie's analyst sees the move as another way for Disney to stay on top of the future of content delivery where connecting directly to consumers is important. Piper Jaffray, on the other hand, is concerned about the long-term implications of pushing ESPN as a streaming service offering. Piper Jaffray's analyst is still bullish and sticking to his $120 price target, but it's proof that the love for Disney's disruptiveness isn't universal.

You can't blame Disney for embracing the change before it gets suffocated by it. The way we consume video content is changing, and just as Disney's original niche of animation experienced a shift from ink and paint to computer-rendered cells, you either have to lead the disruption or get trampled in resistance.

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Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.