Mon Nov 3, 7:31 PM ET
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner said on Monday he was pleased with vacation reservations at the company's theme parks and outlined plans to improve the profitability of the conglomerate's media businesses by controlling costs.
At an investment conference hosted by Harris Nesbitt Gerard, Eisner said Disney would find more original programing for sports juggernaut ESPN so that it could reduce its reliance on more expensive sports licensing deals and would "rebrand" its Fox Kids Europe and ABC Family cable channels.
ESPN, which is 80-percent owned by Disney, has rolled out a new drama series about professional football players this year as part of a bid to broaden its audience and reduce its reliance on expensive broadcast deals like its $4.8 billion, 8-year deal to carry National Football League games.
That series, "Playmakers," has drawn better ratings for ESPN but also been the subject of protests from the NFL and team owners who have strongly objected to plotlines associating players with drugs and domestic violence.
"If ESPN is able to use filmed entertainment to get itself a little teeny bit - because it won't be much - off the heroin of professional rights, the way HBO got off the heroin of movie rights with 'Sex and the City and 'The Sopranos and so forth, it's a good advantage. Now do you have to do a show that offends the people who are your most important client? Maybe not," Eisner said.
Calling Disney a "pragmatic capitalist," Eisner vowed to avoid expensive deals in everything from movie development to buying television stations, an area in which he said Disney would like to expand, but not at current prices.
Disney was criticized for overpaying when it bought the ABC Family network and a controlling stake in Fox Kids Europe as the major elements of a $5.2 billion deal 2 years ago with News Corp. and Saban Entertainment .
But ABC Family, originally envisioned in part as an outlet for re-runs of shows broadcast on Disney's ABC network, has struggled to find a wide audience, and Eisner said it would be rebranded by the company.
"We're going to rebrand Fox Kids Europe and we will rebrand, obviously, Family channel in the U.S.," Eisner said.
Eisner also said the company was not likely to sell its radio holdings, sounding a different note than at conferences over the last year in which he said Disney might part with its radio network for the right price.
As Disney prepares to release fiscal year earnings on Nov. 20, Eisner gave at least one positive sign for theme parks.
Investors have been waiting for a recovery in attendance and spending, which fell as the economy deteriorated and war and global instability kept many potential guests at home.
"I think that if you are in our theme parks today you would see a lot of people there. The advance bookings are making me smile," he said.
Disney has recently scaled back theme park construction after opening a number of new parks around the world, including California Adventure at Disneyland.
A park in Hong Kong is not completed and Eisner said that while Disney wanted to build a theme park in Shanghai, "it all depends on the deal."