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Disney+ now has the power to save Disney stock from bad earnings reports

·Editor-at-Large
·4-min read
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Disney swung to a loss of $710 million in Q4, its first quarterly loss since 2001, and ended up with a net loss for the full year of $2.83 billion.

Q4 revenue came in at $14.71 billion and loss per share was 20 cents, both of which were not as grim as Wall Street had expected.

The pandemic has hit Disney’s theme parks and studio division extremely hard, but even with lowered expectations, the comps between 2020 and 2019 are staggering. Theme parks lost $1.1 billion in Q4, compared to a profit of $1.4 billion in Q4 2019, and lost $81 million for the year overall, compared to a profit of $6.76 billion in 2019. Studio entertainment revenue shrank 52% in Q4 and profit fell 61%.

And yet Disney (DIS) stock rose 6% in after-hours trading on Thursday immediately following the earnings report.

That was thanks to one glittering silver lining: Disney+ subscriptions. Exactly one year after the streaming service launched, Disney+ amassed 73.7 million paying subscribers by Oct. 3. Analysts had expected 65.5 million.

Disney’s other two streaming services, Hulu and ESPN+, ballooned to 36.6 million and 10.3 million paying subscribers, respectively. ESPN+ subscriptions grew by 195% from one year earlier (when it had just 3.5 million subscribers), while Hulu subscriptions grew less impressively, its standard package by 27% and Hulu + Live TV by 41%.

Disney now has 120.6 million paying subscribers across Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+.

Its streaming portfolio is breathing down the neck of Netflix (NFLX), which has 195 million subscribers, including 73 million in the U.S., though Netflix reaps three times as much revenue per subscriber as Disney+ or ESPN+.

The subscriber numbers back up what Disney made crystal clear last month when it publicly announced a corporate re-organization to prioritize direct-to-consumer products and push more original content straight to those products.

Disney Chairman Bob Iger said back in February 2019 that the company’s “number one priority” would be streaming. Now the stock boost after a mostly dismal earnings report proves that shareholders are buying in to the vision.

Even at a time when Disney’s parks across the world are either closed or operating at dramatically reduced capacity, streaming is keeping investors positive.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 31: A family dressed as Disney Plus' The Mandalorian poses in the East Village on October 31, 2020 in New York City. Many Halloween events have been canceled or adjusted with additional safety measures due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 31: A family dressed as Disney Plus' The Mandalorian poses in the East Village on October 31, 2020 in New York City. Many Halloween events have been canceled or adjusted with additional safety measures due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

Of course, now the pressure is on for Disney’s streaming platforms to keep performing and gaining subscribers, since the pandemic will continue to drag on Disney in 2021. The company estimates the net adverse impact of COVID-19 on its fiscal 2020 was $7.4 billion.

The situation at Disney’s parks remains dire. Disneyland in California remains closed, while Disney World in Orlando is open at 25% capacity. Even so, the company laid off 28,000 parks workers in September, and another 720 “Equity Cast Members” (actors and performers at parks shows) in October; Disney reporter Josh Spiegel points out the bad optics of cutting performers so soon after top Disney executives had their pandemic pay cuts reinstated at the end of August. And this month, ESPN cut 300 employees. (Interestingly, Disney’s media networks had a good year, with revenue up 14% in 2020 and profit up 21%.)

The October 3 end date of Disney’s financial year is key because November marked the end of the promotion that gave Verizon Wireless customers one year of Disney+ for free. Those folks must now either pay for a subscription or lose Disney+. The 2020 Q4 subscriber count comes from before the promotion ended; the company’s Q1 2021 earnings call will reveal how much attrition resulted from the end of the Verizon promotion.

There’s good reason the second season of Disney’s hit original Star Wars show “The Mandalorian” premiered the week that the promotion ended.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers Disney and the streaming wars. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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