Since then, Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit has taken steps to move high-profile TV programming away from Hulu in an attempt to bolster its own streaming service, Peacock. Analysts have estimated that buying Comcast’s stake in Hulu would cost at least $9 billion.
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Mr. Loeb also urged Disney to spin off ESPN, the division that has been Disney’s traditional profit engine, because it would give the sports broadcaster “greater flexibility to pursue business initiatives that may be more difficult as part of Disney, such as sports betting,” he wrote.
ESPN’s lineup of live games makes Disney’s bundle of cable channels more valuable in negotiations with cable companies like Comcast and Charter. Disney also emphasized the contribution that ESPN makes to its streaming business, telling investors last week that the sports-focused service ESPN+ had 22.8 million paying subscribers as of July.
And, crucially, ESPN generates significant revenue and profit. Led by ESPN, Disney’s cable networks had $7.2 billion in revenue in the second quarter and $2.5 billion in profit. That money helps offset Disney’s losses in streaming as it builds a portfolio of services. Losses for Disney’s streaming division exceeded $1 billion in the quarter, compared with a loss of $300 million a year earlier, as the company spent aggressively on content, marketing and technology.
“Disney needs ESPN’s free cash flow to accelerate its investment in streaming content,” Richard Greenfield, a LightShed Partners founder, wrote in an analyst report this year. He also noted that spinning off ESPN would be “that much more difficult because it shares resources and content licensing deals with the ABC broadcast network,” another Disney division.
Mr. Loeb suggested that Disney might still benefit from an independent ESPN if it maintained a contractual relationship similar to the one created by eBay when it spun out the payments company PayPal in 2015.
And he suggested that Disney hire new board members, arguing the company has “gaps in talent and experience as a group that must be addressed.” Third Point has already “identified potential board members who we believe would make essential contributions,” Mr. Loeb said, without providing names. He added that the firm “would be happy to make an introduction.”