The Disney talks to acquire many Fox properties, including the regional sports networks, could also lead to some big changes in the executive ranks. In particular, they might lead to Disney CEO Bob Iger once again extending his contract. Iger was first set to step down in 2016, then 2018, but announced in February he might stay longer and signed an extension through July 2019 in March. And as per Brooks Barnes of The New York Times, the Fox discussions may lead to Iger staying on longer still at Rupert Murdoch’s request:
Who will replace Robert A. Iger as chief executive of the Walt Disney Company when he retires in July 2019?
It could well be Robert A. Iger.
Disney is in talks to buy significant parts of 21st Century Fox, the media conglomerate controlled by the Murdoch family, and Rupert Murdoch has asked that any sale involve a commitment by Mr. Iger to extend his reign at Disney — for a fourth time — to help manage the absorption of Fox assets like the FX cable channel and the Star television operation in India.
The request, reported on Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal, was confirmed by two people briefed on the approach that Mr. Murdoch has taken in the talks, which they cautioned could still fall apart. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the negotiations are confidential.
This might wind up making a lot of sense. For one thing, while any Disney-Fox deal could be officially announced soon (a Times report Tuesday said that could come as early as next week), it could take quite a while to close. This is a big and complicated deal, and beyond that, there would certainly be a level of antitrust review; as we’ve seen with AT&T – Time Warner, passing that step is far from a sure thing in this climate. But even presuming any deal closes without without issues, integrating these Fox assets into Disney’s own media empire is still going to lead to plenty of complications. How will the Fox TV and movie studio fit with Disney and ABC’s studios? How will Star’s assets intertwine with what ESPN already has overseas? How will the regional sports networks work with ESPN’s national coverage? The whole point of pursuing scale like this (which is becoming a wider corporate trend) is integrations to find efficiencies, and that’s not a simple process. It’s also not something you want to do in the middle of your CEO’s departure plans, especially when there isn’t an obvious successor. Of course, this would depend on Iger being willing to stay longer (and he may not be if he’s really serious about running for high political office), but at least trying to keep him on feels logical given these talks.
The successor question is also an interesting part of this. Keep in mind that a big part of why Iger has stayed on is because there hasn’t been a clear candidate to replace him; the one candidate thought to be the heir apparent, former Disney COO Thomas Scaggs, left in April 2016 after 26 years at the company, “throwing into question the company’s succession plans.” And it’s worth noting that The Financial Times reported this week that James Murdoch (Rupert’s son, and the current 21st Century Fox CEO) “is likely to take a senior executive role with Disney if a sale is agreed,” and that Murdoch could potentially wind up as Iger’s successor.
None of that’s for sure at this point, and the Disney board may prefer an insider to a newcomer like Murdoch. Bloomberg reported late last month that Disney Parks head Bob Chapek (who’s also been involved with their film studios and consumer products) “is now viewed as a likely successor to Iger.” But, if Murdoch does join Disney as a part of this deal, he might be a better candidate to replace Iger after some time at the company, so Iger staying on for a while could improve his chances. All of that’s very down-the-line speculation; we don’t know for sure that Disney will emerge with these assets (there are other bidders, including Comcast and several tech companies), and we don’t know that Murdoch will join as part of the deal or that he would receive serious consideration as Iger’s successor, but it’s worth pondering the idea.
What does all of this mean for ESPN? Well, the recent extensions for Iger and ESPN president John Skipper (through 2021) have suggested that the board endorses their current plans to adapt to the changing market, including the launch of the ESPN Plus over-the-top service. Iger staying on even further could mean additional continuity for ESPN’s current approach, as a new Disney CEO might look to shake things up more at one of the company’s most important (and most-questioned) assets. But adding these Fox properties, particularly the regional sports networks, would likely lead to big changes at ESPN in its own right. Having Iger stay on to oversee that integration might smooth the transition somewhat, but there are still going to be challenges regardless of who’s at the helm.