No company has been more responsible for shaping the modern entertainment landscape than Walt Disney. In 1937, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, its first feature film, Disney invented the family blockbuster. In 1954, with Disneyland, an anthology series hosted by Walt Disney himself, it became the first movie studio to strike out for the wild west of television. Since then, Disney’s dominance has only grown. Of the dozen films with the largest worldwide box-office take since 2010, Disney released eight.
Those successes, however, belie real danger on the horizon for Disney. In recent years, many of the company’s traditional strengths have slowly turned into weaknesses—like a fairy-tale castle gradually flooded by its own moat.
Take television. Disney has long prospered thanks to the cable bundle, which, like a private-sector tax system, levies a large annual fee on the vast majority of U.S. households. Disney’s most valuable network, the sports juggernaut ESPN, collects approximately $8 per cable-package subscriber a month. No other basic-cable channel makes more than $2.
But the cable business is floundering. Nearly half of adults ages 22 to 45 didn’t watch any broadcast or cable TV in 2017, according to a study by the marketing agency Hearts & Science, and the number of so-called cord cutters abandoning cable is growing by the year. This is troubling news for ESPN, whose daily viewership has declined more than 10 percent since 2011. It’s nearly as troubling for Disney, which makes more money from television than from its movies or amusement parks.