In the media business, who owns what is of primary importance, but it’s often not obvious unless you pay close attention.
Local media outlets, for example, are almost all owned by conglomerates, but play up their local brands or, in the case of TV, their legacy network ties. The same goes for those legacy networks, including ABC. If you’re of a certain age, you remember ABC for Peter Jennings, “Happy Days” or “Monday Night Football” or more recently “Lost” or “Gray’s Anatomy.” But since 1995, Disney has owned ABC.
A whole lot has changed since 1995. ABC’s top-rated show then was “Home Improvement,” which attracted more than 15 million Americans, on average, weekly, for its first-run episodes. Last year, ABC’s most-watched was the reboot of “American Idol” which averaged an audiences less than 7 million. The reasons for this are many and so are the changes yet to come.
In case you missed it, the CEO of Disney, Bob Iger, who returned to the company and is now signed to stay on until at least 2026, said out loud what many had been thinking, not just about ABC but about so many media companies facing uncertain futures of ownership.
“They may not be core to Disney” was how he responded to questions about the company’s “linear” (non-streaming) TV networks, which includes ABC. According to a CNBC report, “Iger said when he had left the company he had predicted the future of traditional TV and had been ‘very pessimistic,’ and has found since his return that he was right in his thinking, adding it’s worse than he expected.”
This also casts an uncertain future for ESPN, long Disney’s cash cow, which analysts predict could attract additional equity investment, at the very least.
Working in the media a generation ago taught many lessons but from a business standpoint, none has been greater than how much ownership matters. Regardless of the brand the audience sees, ownership controls how the outlet is run and how it shapes its strategy. For decades, owning a TV network was a ticket to exceptionally profitable operations. That’s why GE owned NBC for as long as it did – the TV network, and especially its owned-and-operated local stations, had better margins than jet engines, maybe even better than light bulbs.
If ABC is for sale, then any media property you count on or work with could be too. This is yet another example of why, if you work in our adjacent to the media business, you should hang on for more change.