Disney Plus Slows: Stock Drops, Investors Assess Streamer’s Road Ahead

For Disney Plus, maybe getting the first 100 million subscribers was the easy part.

Shares of Disney were down 2.6% in midday trading Friday, after the media company missed revenue estimates for the first three months of 2021 and reported a net gain of 8.7 million Disney Plus subs — more than 5 million fewer than Wall Street had been betting on.

The Disney Plus story was always more about a marathon than a sprint. But analyst consensus expectations “were for a more front-end loaded growth curve” on the road to Disney’s updated forecast of 230 million-260 million Disney Plus subscribers by the end of fiscal 2024, Morgan Stanley analyst Ben Swinburne wrote. “We remain confident in the F24 guidance, but continue to see net adds building over time.”

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Swinburne, who reiterated his “overweight” rating on the stock, said the 104 million Disney Plus streaming sub mark in the first calendar year quarter was in line with the firm’s expectations and reflected “COVID’s impact on content production.”

“It was clear at Disney’s December 2020 investor day that the content quantity would be more modest in F21 given COVID’s impact on production,” Swinburne wrote. “The key titles and quantity of key titles really begin in F22 in earnest, building further into F23.”

Meanwhile, the increasing moves toward economic reopening bodes well for the other parts of Disney’s businesses, led by Parks, according to Swinburne. “As the pandemic subsides over time, sports returns to its normal cadence, and consumers return to theaters — all of Disney’s related businesses should recover quickly and contribute to significant earnings growth,” he wrote.

MoffettNathanson senior analyst Michael Nathanson told clients he was hopeful that “some of that froth will be taken out of the stock” as investors process the slowdown in Disney Plus subscriber growth — and put the value of those subscribers in context.

Per Nathanson’s estimates, of the 70 million new Disney Plus subscribers added over the past year, nearly half have come from Disney Plus Hotstar in India and Indonesia, where the service carries a much lower average price per subscriber. That’s “not meant to diminish what Disney has accomplished,” he wrote. “Rather, it goes to the simplicity (i.e., all subs are worth the same) in which the market has treated Disney’s DTC pivot.”

“Interestingly, in that long-ago time before Disney’s DTC pivot, this quarter’s blowout earnings results would have pushed Disney’s stock higher,” Nathanson added, as the Mouse House’s operating profits came in better across the board.

So how should investors value Disney’s business at this point? Disney has typically traded at a 4% premium to the average market price-to-earnings multiple of 17x from 2015-19, Nathanson noted. The analyst, who maintains a “neutral” rating on Disney stock, said by 2024 “we would argue that the composition of growth should be better with a bigger percentage of revenue driven by DTC and Parks,” in which case using a 25x P/E multiple akin to large tech stocks is a better comparison moving forward. Given the share price has been in that ballpark of late, Nathanson said, “we think the market is confirming our current Neutral rating on the stock.”

One thing is clear: Disney will need to consistently build the Disney Plus subscriber base to deliver on its forecasts. Per Bernstein Research analyst Todd Juenger’s estimates, the media company will need to gain 5 million new Disney Plus subscribers (excluding Disney Plus Hotstar) each quarter over the next 14 quarters to hit the revised targets.

On Thursday’s earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek acknowledged that international expansion will be the big driver of Disney Plus gains. But he insisted that there’s still plenty of opportunity to grow the U.S. base with the Disney Plus/ESPN Plus/Hulu bundle.

And CFO Christine McCarthy insisted that Disney Plus has not seen a significant uptick in subscriber churn even with the price hike that went into effect in late March. “We seem to be fairly resilient, which makes us feel relatively bullish going forward,” she said.

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