The rivalry between the Walt Disney Company and Comcast Corporation is one that spans decades and many different genres such as network television, sports programming, and theme parks, among others around the world. For purposes of space and length, this commentary will briefly cover relevant literature on the rivalry phenomenon, and then focus on the competition between Disney and Comcast in (1) network television, (2) theme parks, (3) theatrical productions, and (4) acquisitions and streaming services. The four areas featured in this commentary were carefully chosen to illustrate how Disney strategically operates within their rivalry with Comcast, and offer lessons to practitioners. Additionally, it should be noted that due to space constraints, the topics discussed are kept brief, and therefore should not be seen as an exhaustive discussion of the rivalry between the two companies.
Table 1: Rivalry Topics and Examples Covered
Rivalry occurs when two groups, whether sport teams and fans, or consumer product/services companies and their supporters engage. Further, a rival is a group that represents a threat to the in-group. Rivalry has been studied in various settings such as sport, business, and politics. Rivalry can make people feel unique from an out-group, resulting in a closer tie to other in-group members. Further, the phenomenon can cause someone to increase their effort and output, but also increase likelihood to consider unethical behavior.
To supporters of a brand, rivalry can increase the negative perceptions they have of an out-group, which can be influenced by direct and indirect comparisons. Research within the sport context has gathered a great deal of understanding on the phenomenon. For example, rivalry can vary among competitors, and influence the way people view behavior of the out-group, along with their attitudes toward the favored brand. Finally, the rivalry phenomenon can drive consumers and supporters to react differently to mediated messages, and also influence their consumption of the favorite and rival brand.
A Brief History of the Walt Disney Company
The Walt Disney Company was formed in 1923 by brothers Walter and Roy Disney, and at the time focused on producing animated shorts. During the Disney brothers time with the company—Walt died in 1966 and Roy in 1971—the company received international acclaim for accomplishments such as creating beloved characters like Mickey Mouse, producing animated and live action short and feature length movies, constructing and opening the Disneyland theme park, and planning and purchasing land for Walt Disney World in Florida.
Following the death of the Disney brothers, the success of the company fluctuated until the hire of Michael Eisner as CEO in 1984. Under his watch, the company expanded into multiple areas such as network programming (ABC, Disney Channel, ESPN), and built new theme parks in the United States and abroad. An attempt by Comcast at a hostile takeover of the company provided the emphasis for Michael Eisner to step down in 2005. Following Eisner, Robert Iger was named CEO of the company and continued, or expanded, the company’s growth with acquisitions such as Pixar, LucasFilm, and Marvel Studios. Today, the Walt Disney Company is seen as one of the world’s largest conglomerates and has been used to provide important lessons to practitioners.
Disney vs. Comcast Rivalry
In 1996, the Walt Disney Company purchased Capital Cities/ABC Inc. for $19 billion. The purchase also brought the popular and lucrative ESPN property under the Disney umbrella, and brought additional notoriety to the ABC brand, which built it into a formidable rival to networks such as NBC and CBS. The acquisition also returned a helping hand to ABC, which had provided funding during the construction of Disneyland in exchange for weekly Walt Disney programing for the young network. Comcast Corporation purchased General Electrics’ (GE) remaining stake in NBCUniversal in 2013 for $16.7 billion. The purchase of GE’s remaining 51 percent stake in the media company saw the conglomerate enter into the competitive network television space. Additionally, through their acquisitions, the two companies have also competed in sports programming (see Table 1).
The Walt Disney Company operates six resorts and twelve theme parks around the world. Comcast Corporation operates four Universal theme parks in the United States and abroad. The rivalry between the two companies typically focuses on their theme park properties in California and Florida. In fact, it was backlot tours at Universal City Studies that gave Walt Disney the idea of providing public access to the Disney Studios. However, instead of focusing on backlot tours, Walt Disney’s ideas for attractions to help promote the studio’s theatrical and television programing grew into the theme park known as Disneyland. In turn, the success of Disneyland prompted management at Universal to offer more access and attractions to guests at their studios.
The theme park rivalry grew in 1971 when the Disney Company opened Walt Disney World outside of Orlando, Florida. This prompted Universal to begin planning an east coast property which came to fruition when Universal Studios Florida opened in 1990. Adding to the rivalry, Michael Eisner and Disney were rushing to open a third gate at Walt Disney World focusing on the process of movie-making. When MGM Studios opened in 1989, many at Universal accused Eisner of borrowing their idea for a movie-making Florida theme park.
Fans of both Disney and Universal Parks can show strong loyalty to their preferred brands, and recent acquisitions of intellectual property leading to themed lands such as Cars Land, Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge (Disney) and Wizardly World of Harry Potter (Universal) has increased the rivalry between the companies. In 2019, Universal placed all four of its parks in the Top 25 Amusement Parks in the World, and Disney placed 67 percent of its properties—additionally, Universal and Disney properties made up four of the top five spaces on the list. Further, a new Universal Park for Orlando was recently announced, which will no doubt continue to drive the amusement parks rivalry. Another interesting point of rivalry between Disney and Universal is the inclusion of Marvel properties like Spiderman and the Hulk in Universal Studios Florida’s Islands of Adventure. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has brought a lot of comic fans and general consumers to the Disney brand, however, Universal owns the theme park rights for the Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk properties. Recently, results showed that fans of the Disney Parks reported significantly more positive perceptions of the Universal Parks than sport fans did regarding their biggest rival team, illustrating that the companies’ rivalry and efforts to out-do each other is to the overall benefit of theme park fans and visitors.
For purposes of this commentary, our discussion of the rivalry in theatrical productions will focus on the Marvel properties, which the Walt Disney Company purchased in 2009. The success of the movies has set up Marvel Studios as one of the premier storytelling and theatrical production companies. Further, the popularity of MCU has led to discussions regarding its influence within society, and academia.
In the past, Marvel made deals with production companies for stand-alone movies and televisions programs, however, the first major box office success of the Marvel properties occurred in the early 2000’s when Sony Pictures released the first Spiderman trilogy. Following this success, Marvel Studios started producing Iron Man—the first movie of the MCU—with Paramount Pictures. After Iron Man, the studios then worked with Universal to produce The Incredible Hulk.
Following Disney’s purchase of Marvel Studios, movies within the MCU were distributed under the Disney banner, however, the character rights to Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk are still owned by Sony Pictures and Universal respectively. Therefore, Disney has to work with both companies to feature either character within the MCU. To this day, Disney has produced and distributed two Spiderman stand-alone movies with Sony—Spiderman: Homecoming and Spiderman: Far From Home—however has yet to reach an agreement with Universal that would provide the Incredible Hulk with the same treatment. Instead, writers and directors within the MCU have told the character’s story arc through a series of films where he is allowed to interact with other Marvel intellectual property.
Acquisitions and Streaming
The latest high profile competition between Disney and Comcast occurred in 2018 when the two companies engaged in a bidding war for assets being sold by 21st Century Fox. It is common practice for competitors to try and either outbid the other, or make the rival pay more for acquired assets as competition over talent can increase rivalry between brands and consumers. At stake during the bidding process were regional sports programming, popular networks such as FX, FXX, and National Geographic, and the rights to Marvel’s X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises and characters—which Fox had distributed movies of both franchises to varying success in the 2000’s.
After Disney secured the acquisition, many viewed the ability to use the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Deadpool characters within the MCU as a major reward for Disney. The importance of such characters may have also allowed Universal to drive up the price on Disney in the bid process. In May 2019, Disney sold the regional Fox Sports Networks channels to Sinclair as part of their merger agreement set by federal regulators. This, along with Comcast’s acquisition of Sky Sports has been seen as a win for Comcast, and potentially led to talks between the two rivals over the Hulu streaming service.
Both companies have also ventured into the streaming service space. Disney launched ESPN+ in fall 2018, and Disney+ in fall 2019. After they announced the monthly subscription price for Disney+ would be $6.99, Comcast had to reevaluate their pricing strategy for their streaming service originally slated at $12 per month. Further, Disney also announced that they would bundle Disney+ and ESPN+ with Hulu, which is expected to place more pressure on Comcast regarding their price point. Pricing competition is typical among competing brands, for example, when gas stations across the street from one another reduce prices to stay ahead of each other. The Comcast streaming service is scheduled to launch in 2020, and some reports have indicated the service, named Peacock, may offer a free ad-supported service to all consumers. If these reports are accurate, Comcast would present a new strategy regarding product pricing.
Most recently, Comcast agreed to sell their share in the Hulu streaming service to Disney, giving the latter complete control over the service. To many, this may seem like the Walt Disney Company won the strategic planning contest, however, it also begs the questions: What is Comcast planning in the future? Does Comcast want Disney to have spent high on Fox and Hulu to clear way for a future acquisition? and How will Disney respond to future negotiations and bidding competitions with Comcast?
As the world reacts to the COVID-19 pandemic, a few notes related to the Walt Disney Company and Comcast Corporation rivalry are warranted. Specifically, both Disney and Universal branded theme parks closed around the world, and the two companies have teamed up to coordinate how the parks should be reopened in a safe and responsible manner. Bob Iger stepped down as CEO of the Walt Disney Company to concentrate on entertainment content in February, transitioning his role to Bob Chapek. However, amid the impact of COVID-19 on the company, Iger temporarily took over his leadership role (not title) to help the company pass through the uncertain time. Finally, when movie theaters were forced to close due to the pandemic, multiple media companies announced that some movies slated for theatrical runs would instead be released using an online, On-Demand model. Universal announced they would continue to consider releasing new movies using this model in addition to theatrical runs in the future, which was met with strong statements from leading theater companies regarding Universal movies.
Following our brief background of rivalry, and discussion of the competition between Disney and Comcast, the last part of this commentary will cover lessons from the rivalry applicable to business practitioners. First, the historical direct competition, proximity, and indirect competition of Disney and Comcast fit the mold of a rivalry at the highest levels. Another aspect of rivalry, competition for personnel, applies to the Disney and Comcast relationship, as the companies bid for intellectual property (e.g., Marvel, Harry Potter, etc.) and talent (e.g., theme park designers and movie/television directors and actresses/actors commonly work for both companies during their careers). Therefore, the relationship between Disney and Comcast fits the academic definition of a rivalry. Even though Disney and Comcast are media conglomerates, there are still valuable lessons that managers can take away from their rivalry, regardless of company size or reach. This section has been organized to highlight lessons in (1) competitive scanning, (2) organizational foresight, (3) strategic pricing, (4) cooperation, and (5) customer orientation.
First, management at both companies regularly keep up with the actions of the other in order to track competitor trends and learn from the actions of each other. Further, managers have to be aware that rival companies may try to outbid, or simply make them pay more for a product as a strategic move and plan accordingly. This occurred when Comcast outbid Disney for the Fox properties, resulting in Disney having to pay more than their original bid. Now, the author does not suggest that this came as a surprise to Disney, and likely was even part of their strategy to offer an initial bid lower than what they expected to pay. In fact, to secure the Fox bid, executives from Disney traveled to London in secrecy so that Comcast would not know their plans. It is also reasonable to expect that Disney is monitoring how Universal and theaters resolve their disagreements regarding future Universal movie releases. It is important that practitioners take this lesson when considering what type of initial bid to offer in anticipation of a rival trying to increase the amount of resources needed for an acquisition or purchase. For companies not engaged in trying to acquire another organization, properly managing the resources they spend on technology, equipment, or personnel represents a similar challenge.
The second important lesson for managers is the need to always keep true to their organization’s goals, objectives, and most importantly, mission. It is well-known that an organization’s mission should help drive all decisions and future directions, and an organization that sticks close to their stated mission is better equipped to identify, and avoid, participating in an escalation of commitment. On the other hand, a company that either does not have a clearly stated mission or chooses not to adhere to it opens itself up to situations where they may be bated into committing more resources than is responsible for their overall health.
On this note, and relevant to all lessons presented in this discussion is the importance that managers consider what resources they are comfortable spending so they do not engage in irresponsible behavior because they become engaged in an escalation of commitment. Escalation of commitment occurs when organizations cave to the need to spend more resources than responsible. While it is difficult to determine where exactly a potential investment becomes something with diminishing returns, competition with a rival would be a variable that could help contribute to organizations engaging in behavior detrimental to the company. The thrill of winning or beating a rival for materials, content, or personnel should never supersede the need to be responsible with available resources, including how the acquisition or purchase could benefit the company.
A third lesson for practitioners from the Disney/Comcast rivalry is to strategically price products and services so they can avoid a price war to the best of their ability. This was seen when Comcast had to reconsider, and subsequently lower their monthly subscription rate for their streaming service based on Disney’s pricing strategy with Disney+. Additionally, it is important to properly price a product so as to avoid any perception of a strategic error or diminishing product quality if the price is decreased. If an organization lowers the price on a product or service, they may be able to attract consumers, but they also run the risk of diminishing the value of the product and offending regular customers. For example, a sport team that discounts tickets may increase attendance at a game in the short term, however, they may inadvertently discourage loyal fans from attending games. Additionally, they are not guaranteed that people who took advantage of the discounted ticket price will become repeat consumers.
A fourth, and very important lesson, is that within every competition and rivalry, companies still have to cooperate with each other to accomplish certain strategic moves. For example, Disney has to work with Universal in order for the Incredible Hulk to appear in movies alongside other Marvel characters, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the two companies are currently coordinating to reopen their parks in a responsible manner. Similarly, Disney also has to work with Sony Pictures for the usage of the Spider-Man character in the MCU, which was tested during the most recent negotiations between the companies regarding the future of the property. Further, with the success of Avengers: Endgame passing Avatar for the highest box office numbers all time (not adjusted for inflation), Comcast finds itself in a position where they are both reaping rewards of the MCU’s success while also promoting the characters through their Universal Orlando park. This seems to be something that, at least for the time being, is acceptable to Comcast. Managers and companies have to make decisions regarding when cooperating with their rival helps their interests, and when differentiation is the better path.
Another note on cooperation, and again one relevant to several lessons, is the outlook that rivalry is a positive variable when treated in a healthy manner. Competition and rivalry can make individuals, groups, and organizations strive to improve their efforts, products, and services. Without a rival pushing for improvement of products and services, an organization can become complacent in the way it engages with customers, thus hurting output and opening itself up to market disruptors. While it is certainly true that a rival can influence organizations in undesirable ways, if treated with a healthy level of respect and competition, a rival can improve the overall organization.
A fifth lesson that can be garnered from the Disney/Comcast rivalry is the understanding of how decisions will impact consumers. For every decision that is made, consumers can react both positively and negatively, and rivalry is a variable that plays an important role in the process. For example, in the sport context, people react positively to sponsors of favorite teams and negatively of rival teams. Further, consumers react negatively to a brand that sponsors both a favorite and a rival team. More evidence of this behavior can come from consumer’s reactions on social media when a new product is released. For example, someone may choose to derogate a product released by a rival company such as Disney/Comcast, Apple/Samsung, or PlayStation/Xbox. Therefore, it is important that managers be cognizant of the various reactions to decisions and products, and discern between those of brand supporters and brand opposers.
It is paramount that practitioners keep track of their consumers satisfaction. Because rivalry can influence the way consumers see competing and favorite brands, managers have to make sure they pay proper attention to the satisfaction of engaged consumers rather than simply looking at overall public reaction or perceptions. If a manager chooses to view public opinion without taking the perceptions of their key stakeholders into account, they run the risk of reacting in a way that may inadvertently alienate engaged consumers. Therefore, in addition to learning from the actions of rival companies, it is important that practitioners continually reevaluate products and services in an attempt to better satisfy their customers and not get lost in the overall shuffle of public reaction.
There are many lessons business practitioners, whether in a small or large company, can learn from the Walt Disney Company’s rivalry with Comcast. This article sought to identify some lessons on rivalry that can be used by managers and companies to work with, negotiate with, and at times seek to out-perform rivals and competitors.