Disney CEO Bob Iger. WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 05: The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Robert Iger delivers remarks during an event introducing Disney’s new “Magic of Healthy Living” program at the Newseum June 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. As part of the new healthy eating initiative, all products advertised on Disney’s child-focused television channels, radio stations and Web sites must adhear to a new set of strict nutritional standards. Addionally, Disney-licensed products that meet criteria for limited calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar can display a logo – Mickey Mouse ears and a check mark – on their packaging. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Disney has been trumpeting the forthcoming ESPN Plus over-the-top service and its importance to the company’s future plans for some time, and CEO Bob Iger provided some more insight and details into what’s coming in remarks at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference Monday.

Notably, Iger gave a more specific launch date than the “late spring” we’ve often heard, and also talked about future tiered offerings as well as the overall importance of the redesigned ESPN app (which will include free-to-all content and content free to authenticated cable/satellite subscribers as well as the OTT Plus service) to the company’s future.

Here are more details from Deadline’s Dade Hayes:

Disruptions to the TV ecosystem, Iger conceded, have had a “faster and a more profound impact than we ever expected.” He said the rollout of the company’s two apps will enable Disney to “participate in the very business that is doing the disrupting.”

The launch of the long-awaited ESPN Plus, expected in late March or early April, offers a version of the sports network for $4.99 a month, as Disney disclosed this month on its quarterly earnings call. Describing that price as “reasonable” given the less-than-platinum offerings at launch, Iger said plans call for tiered pricing as OTT rights to top-tier sports are solidified.

“I imagine you’ll see that price rise for the augmented service,” Iger said. “We have the opportunity to enable customers to buy seasons, teams, weekends.” The ESPN Plus app will also enable sales of Major League Baseball and National Hockey League out-of-market packages, he added.

Iger said the nurturing and development of the app will remain a long-term priority for the company. “Over time, our intention would be for that app to be the app that people experience ESPN on,” he said, “but we’re going to manage the migration of that very carefully because right now we have a business — the multi-channel business — that is serving our company quite well.”

There’s a lot of interesting information in there, especially when it comes to options for ESPN Plus. Many have criticized the service for not having complete selections of top-tier rights at first, but it sounds like more rights are coming and more flexible packages will be offered down the road. And the launch date is notable, as that looks close to the start of the MLB season (and MLB content is expected to be a key feature of the ESPN Plus offering).

Beyond that, Iger’s comments about the redesigned app (which goes well beyond ESPN Plus to also offer news, highlights and studio clips for everyone, plus full access to ESPN’s linear channel programming for authenticated subscribers) aren’t all that new, as he’s been discussing its importance for months, but it is significant that he’s talking publicly about how he sees it as where people “experience ESPN.”

For most of the network’s history, the main way to “experience ESPN” has been to flip on the TV, with their offerings in other realms seen as mostly ancillary. Iger’s suggesting that they do still want to keep and prioritize their traditional TV customers, but that the shift towards the app as the first point of contact may come sooner rather than later.

Iger had some further notable remarks on sports and sports rights. Here are a few from the Laughing Place (a site covering Disney) live blog of his appearance:

Bob believes that consumers will spend the money they save on “skinny bundles” on other forms of entertainment including ESPN Plus and the Disney OTT service.

Bob says Red Zone, which shows NFL highlights, probably contributed to NFL ratings declines. He says the NFL remains valuable.

They looked at the Thursday Night Football package, but concluded it didn’t make sense to them.

The moderator says the Disney Parks haven’t gotten as much attention from the markets. Iger notes that they should saying, “They should get more attention than ESPN subs”

It’s logical that Disney didn’t want to go in hard for Thursday Night Football, considering what they’re already spending for Monday Night Football and considering what Fox wound up paying for that product. And the Disney deal to buy Fox assets, including the television studio, is important context there. Without a studio to develop in-house product for its broadcast network, Fox may emphasize sports more, while Disney will now have two in-house TV studios to create programming for ABC and other platforms, so there’s less incentive for them to offer broadcast sports during a weeknight primetime window.

It’s also interesting that Iger still maintains markets care about ESPN too much relative to other aspects of Disney’s business (something he’s said before), and the comments here that Iger anticipates entertainment spends not declining, but shifting, are notable as well. Consider that in light of what he said about Disney’s forthcoming entertainment service relative to Netflix, as per Variety’s Ricardo Lopez:

Pushing back on characterizations that Disney’s streaming platform will be a rival to Netflix, Iger said he sees two distinct businesses. “Netflix is a completely different business in the sense that they’re a very-high volume business,” he said. “We’re going to be in the business of less volume, but more branded content.”

Iger argued that Disney’s brands, which include Marvel, Pixar, and Lucasfilm, “are in enough demand, that we believe it’ll enable us to take a product to market with less volume.”

Disney studios will be making original content exclusively for the Disney streaming service, including four to five new series — among them “Star Wars” and Marvel properties — as well as four to five original films, Iger said.

This is a worldview that’s very rosy for content companies like Disney, especially with their extended OTT strategy for both ESPN Plus and the Disney streaming service. If consumers’ entertainment spending doesn’t actually decline in the new OTT universe, companies like Disney that offer premium services in addition to their channels on streaming skinny bundles may be in a position to do even better than they did in the multichannel bundle universe.

Of course, no one knows if that will actually be the case, and we really won’t know how that will relate to ESPN and Disney until these streaming services actually drop. But positioning themselves as a different service to buy in addition to Netflix rather than a Netflix rival is smart, as is not trying to be everything to everyone, but rather a service with some premium brands and in-demand content. We’ll see how it goes for Disney and Iger, but they’re definitely emphasizing these new streaming products and suggesting that they’ll be a crucial part of the future of ESPN. Just how bright that future is remains yet to be seen.


About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.