Amid all the ferment at Disney – Who will partner on an ESPN spinoff? Who buys ABC? That pivotal Charter cable deal. Streaming’s bottomless spending hole. The price of Hulu. Two union strikes. – it’s easy to forget that the Disney board brought back Bob Iger as CEO almost exactly nine months ago specifically to do one big thing: find a successor.
And that, it seems, may be the most intractable task on Iger’s suddenly really long to-do list. Yes, all those other things remain pressing priorities on his list, but at least they’re mostly moving forward, in some cases (ABC, Hulu) faster than previously expected.
So, who will run a much smaller and notably different Disney in the future? A candidate for the future still would need to be facile with dealmaking, operate a media company rebuilt for the industry’s streaming future, oversee the vast parks & resorts division, and navigate the deep Disney corporate culture and the company’s devoted fan base.
The list of likely candidates now publicly known is short. And the Disney CEO job’s unique particulars, like knowing media and hospitality, make the list of potential outsider candidates even shorter.
Inside, there’s Dana Walden, a highly regarded TV executive who came over in Iger’s $71 billion acquisition of most of Fox’s assets. Josh D’Amaro is a well-liked chief of parks & resorts, one of the company’s biggest revenue sources. And Jimmy Pitaro heads long-time cash cow ESPN, now a standalone division teed up to become a separate company with minority investors as it tries to make the leap to streaming in one piece.
Each could be a successor, but has big holes in their resume that make it more challenging to see them at the top.
D’Amaro has never run a movie or TV division, at a time when those operations are struggling with secular shifts in their businesses and audience habits. Walden (and film chief Alan Bergman) have never worked on the parks & resorts side (which also includes consumer products). Pitaro may soon be CEO of a standalone ESPN, and regardless, hasn’t run either movie/TV operation or parks.
And then there are the former insiders Kevin Mayer and Tom Staggs. To help Iger navigate the challenges of ESPN’s future, the final cost of Comcast’s Hulu stake, and the likely sale of ABC and other legacy broadcast and cable operations, he brought back the two former lieutenants as consultants, whom many observers also believe may be candidates.
Both were considered possible Iger successors in the 2010s, but both moved on when they didn’t get the job. After other career stops, the pair co-founded Candle Media, which is backed by private equity giant Blackstone and has been rolling up production and media companies such as Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine and kids-media powerhouse Moonbug Entertainment.
As consultants, Mayer in particular has been advising Iger on a raft of potential deals that will reshape the media giant the pair helped build over 15 years of Iger’s legendary first run at the top of the Mouse House.
Mayer and Staggs certainly know the Disney culture and other key parts of its operations. But like the internal candidates, they each also come with weaknesses.
Mayer was the corporate strategy executive who ramrodded crucial acquisitions such as LucasArts, BAM, Marvel, and Fox. He also oversaw Disney’s streaming division leading up to the Disney+ debut in 2019. But he’s never had substantial operating experience on either the entertainment or resorts side.
Staggs, a former Disney CFO
All of which leaves Iger and (more particularly) the board that rehired him, with a thorny set of issues.
Would Iger move to an executive chairman role, taking on some areas where a successor lacks experience? He extended his two-year contract with the Disney board in July through 2026, so he’d be available for that kind of transition to a new role.
But that approach didn’t work out the first time, when former parks chief Bob Chapek took over as CEO while Iger remained as executive chairman overseeing creative operations. Iger and Chapek frequently butted heads before Iger finally fully retired at the end of 2021.
The board could also decide to name two people with different skill sets to run the company, seeing which might emerge as a more definite No. 1. That approach carries its own challenges, including a certain whiff of Hunger Games or at least Succession in the inevitable jousting for position between the two candidates.
The real challenge that Iger and Disney face, however, is the board that will make the allegedly final choice of Iger’s second successor.
The board is stacked with executives who have little entertainment background. Worse, it collectively has not distinguished itself over the past few years. After all, this is largely the same board that extended Chapek’s contract by two years just five months before it fired him the weekend before Thanksgiving last year.
That the board then brought back Iger, and again charged him with finding his successor, feels like an abdication of responsibility and illustrative of the company’s ongoing challenge. Perhaps Iger should focus on building a better board first, to get the help he really needs to work himself out of a job.