Disney has less than two years to appoint the successor for CEO Bob Iger—for the second time—and it reportedly has a short list of candidates.
Iger first served as chief executive for the 15 years leading to 2020, when he relinquished his position to his hand-picked replacement, Bob Chapek, head of Disney’s theme parks. Chapek’s tenure as CEO was racked with problems, from lost revenue during the Covid-19 pandemic to getting Disney mixed up in Florida politics. He also reportedly sparred with Iger, who lingered in the wings and felt Chapek was incompetent, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Last November, the board surprised investors by re-hiring Iger for a two-year stint, in which he would refocus Disney’s content strategy and aid the board in choosing the next CEO. Media consultants and former Disney employees agree the new CEO must recognize’s Iger’s role at the company to avoid another embarrassing transition.
“The new CEO will need to view Iger as an ally,” said James Blevins, former Disney studio manager who now works at Mesh, a media entertainment consultancy.
Candidates include Adam Silver, commissioner of the National Basketball Association; Kevin Mayer, a Disney executive of 15 years; and Dana Walden, co-chairman of Disney Entertainment and former Fox executive, according to Charles Gasparino, a Fox Business reporter. The short list was confirmed by additional reporting from CNBC’s Jess Golden and Doug Greenberg from Front Office Sports.
High stakes for Disney
The stakes are high for Disney. The company has found itself at the helm of Succession-like drama in recent months, from the ousting of Chapek, reportedly coordinated in part by Iger, to a proxy battle waged by an activist investor. An unfit CEO or messy transition could damage the company’s relationship with investors at a time when the media landscape is changing.
Disney’s streaming business is a problem area Iger or its next CEO will need to solve. Among the challenges is making the Disney+ platform profitable and deciding the future of ESPN+ and Hulu. The company could sell its majority stake in Hulu or buy Comcast’s portion as early as next year.
Disney is also facing dampened employee morale resulting from the Chapek era, as well as stifled relationships within Hollywood, said Jon Rogers, Disney’s former franchise development head who also works at Mesh now. Iger will likely remain a huge factor in future company decisions, and that’s in part due to the culture at the company, said Blevins.
When Iger began as CEO in 2005, his predecessor Michael Eisner was still very active in the company. When Iger proved he could run Disney, Eisner faded away. “It’s hard for Disney CEOs to let go,” said Rogers.
“Chapek never wanted to use Iger as a resource,” he said. And just as the new CEO will need to earn trust from Hollywood and company employees, they will need to earn Iger’s trust as well, said Rogers.
What the new CEO needs
“There’s no shortage of people who would want the job,” even after the public ousting of Chapek, said Rogers. “There’s a skill set required, and I don’t think they got the right skill-set mix with Chapek.”
A new executive must be an ambassador and a peacemaker in Hollywood, in politics and within the broader employee base, which are skills Chapek lacked, Rogers said. They also need to have experience in transitioning a company to the digital sphere, which is one of Iger’s weaknesses, he said.
The future CEO should also have experience in entertainment, rather than in theme parks like Chapek, because Disney’s whole business is built on its content, said Andy Hoffman, senior media strategist and consultant for Pace Public Relations, a New York-based media agency. While Disney parks and products accounted for one-third of total revenues in 2022, the rides, hotels and other attractions are all based on the company’s content and storytelling.
Who are the candidates?
Disney is reportedly considering both internal and external candidates. If Disney chooses a CEO from another company, it should be someone with high-level experience at a media company like Apple, Amazon or Netflix, Hoffman said. If the CEO comes from an external company, some high-ranking employees within the company might leave, given that they would have been passed over twice for the CEO role, he said.
Mayer was previously a top candidate for CEO when Iger retired in 2020, and left his position as direct-to-consumer chairman to serve as TikTok’s CEO. He now works as co-CEO of Candle Media, a Los Angeles-based media company he founded alongside Tom Staggs, Disney’s former chief operating officer. Mayer would be an excellent choice for CEO because of his background in storytelling, said Rogers.
Staggs, who went unnamed in the original reported short list, would be great as well, he said. Other unnamed but potential candidates include Jay Rasulo, former Disney chief financial officer; Jimmy Pitaro, the ESPN chairman with a background in digital media; and Sean Bailey, Disney’s studio president, according to Rogers.
Dana Walden’s name made the short list, but she has limited experience with Disney, Rogers said. She joined Disney in 2019 with the company’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Fox employees had a difficult time adjusting to Disney after the acquisition, Rogers said. Walden became the co-chairman of Disney Entertainment last month.
While Rogers argues the NBA’s Silver lacks the necessary Disney experience to be an effective CEO, others disagree. The NBA has grown well under Silver’s guidance, said Adam Armbruster, a senior partner at Eckstein, Summers, Armbruster & Company, a media sales consultancy. The NBA reportedly earned $10 billion during the 2021 to 2022 season, more than double its revenue from when Silver became commissioner in 2014. As long as the CEO values the history and legacy of the company, it will prosper, he said.