Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, walks for lunch at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 12, 2023 in Sun Valley, Idaho. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
(CNN) -- Bob Iger, neatly dressed in a gray suit and ironed white shirt, without a tie, took the stage Tuesday afternoon at New York City's New Amsterdam Theatre, waving to an eager crowd of Disney employees gathered for his long-awaited appearance.
The CEO, a year after his second act at the media conglomerate, was scheduled to address his troops at the company's annual meeting, and Tuesday's appointment was of particular interest to Magic Kingdom residents, given the amount of candid comments Iger has made about the state of the company.
Iger was joined by ABC World News anchor David Muir, who joked at the start of the event, according to a video I obtained from key parts of the discussion, that he thought it was a "very good sign" for the future of the news division. He was asked to play the role of moderator of the event. The joke, and the nervous laughter that followed, was a not-so-subtle nod to the uncertainty that has gripped ABC News and the company at large over the past few months after Iger went public with the sale of some of Disney's linear assets.
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Of course, it's not just the future of ABC that's been up in the air. Iger has had nothing short of a full plate since retaking the Magic Kingdom throne last year. He's been tasked with repositioning ESPN in a direct-to-consumer future, reversing the company's faltering creative engine (e.g., Marvel Studios' public stumble), navigating a difficult advertising climate, putting the Hulu streaming service entirely under Disney's umbrella, and cutting billions of dollars in costs.
Traversing such arduous terrain is difficult enough on its own. But it's far more challenging in the face of two historic work stoppages, of which some industry-defining issues such as artificial intelligence were on the table during painstaking and marathon negotiations with Hollywood screenwriters and actors.
All in all, it's been a demanding 12 months for the legendary Disney boss. As Iger himself said, after acknowledging that 2023 has been more difficult than he predicted, it has simply been "one of those years."
"I knew there would be countless challenges I would face coming back," Iger said. "I won't say it was easy, but I never doubted the decision to come back, and being back still feels great."
Iger told Disney employees that over the past year he's spent a lot of time "fixing things." But now, he said, he wants to spend the next year building a modern version of the Walt Disney Company — one that can endure into the future. He noted that "building is a lot more fun than fixing."
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That's true, without a doubt. But it's not yet clear what Iger would like to do with some of the company's declining TV assets, namely ABC. Is the sale of these assets still at stake? Iger downplayed the possibility, but doesn't rule it out, suggesting that if the right offer comes along, he might be willing to shed parts of the portfolio in the downtrend.
But after shocking employees at Disney-owned chains earlier this year by saying out loud that the medium "may not be pivotal" to the company's advancement, it's notable that Iger's public comments have changed somewhat. Lately, he's been talking about the importance of one linear asset in particular, ABC, perhaps indicating that he wants to keep the giant in Disney's fold.
And that trend of speaking loudly from ABC continued on Tuesday.
Iger, however, had no qualms about saying that Disney is "trying to migrate these (linear) businesses to the new business model." And he acknowledged that Disney's management is looking "to the future" of its entire portfolio, examining whether various assets can grow. "Will they stay the same or possibly decrease in value?" asked Iger. "And if so, what should we do about it?"
Iger, however, spoke very positively about ABC News in his conversation with Muir. He noted that it has been "in one way or another" part of his "executive life since 1993." He stressed that he is a "believer in the future of news." And he praised ABC News for its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war.
Later, when Iger gave the floor to Dana Walden, co-president of Disney Entertainment who oversees the network's business, who spoke more broadly about the benefits of having a network like ABC within Disney's portfolio.
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"What we've found is that our linear channels are very deeply ingrained in our streaming strategy," Walden said. "They want to watch live shows, sports, live events; they want to see them in a period of time, and the place where they can do that, for the most part, is the linear channels... The notion of a community event still exists very much in linear channels."
On the ESPN front, network boss Jimmy Pitario laid out a carefully planned transition the sports giant is preparing to make to streaming. He said ESPN, which generates mountains of cash for Mickey Mouse, is continuing to investigate its offer, "looking at things like timing" and "price." Pitaro said customers will still be able to access ESPN through traditional cable or satellite packages.
Pitaro stressed that ESPN is "talking to potential partners," though he did not specify which ones. But he said they're looking for partnerships "through lenses like technology, marketing, and then also content," explaining that on launch day he wants "maximum distribution" and "the best content portfolio we can."
The on-stage discussion between Iger and his executive team covered considerable ground, oscillating between a number of topics, including Disney's recent challenges at the box office and the company's streaming plans, which include hosting Hulu and Disney+ content under one roof.
But through it all, Iger did his best to strike an optimistic tone and instill hope in a workforce that has likely had morale in a better place than it is today.
"We've been through tough times and we've faced a lot of adversity as a company," Iger told Disney employees, "and I know we always get through it."