Disney’s Kareem Daniel Talks ESPN, Hulu and Streaming vs. Linear Biz

The television industry has been laser-focused on the transition to streaming in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that the linear side is being ignored or neglected.

That was the message Thursday from Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution, the unit that oversees all TV and film distribution and monetization within the Disney empire. Daniel was a keynote speaker at Variety‘s Entertainment and Technology Summit at 1 Hotel in West Hollywood, presented by City National Bank.

“We’ve always had the focus internally about the variety of platforms that we have in [Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution], or the variety of experience touchpoints that we have across the Walt Disney Company with consumers –– that is no less of a priority now than it ever has been. And we tie these organizations together in a way that, again, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” he said.

“If you look at historically what the Walt Disney Company has done, we have exceeded and perhaps even led those industries despite the [changes] that may occur in the industries in which we participate in,” he added in his keynote conversation with Cynthia Littleton, Variety’s co-editor in chief.

ESPN has been making headlines recently, as Disney has faced some pressure from investors to consider a sale or spinoff of the sports powerhouse while the traditional pay-TV ecosystem feels the pain of cord-cutting. But ESPN is still a big part of Disney’s business and also remains cable’s most-watched channel. Daniel acknowledged that there are tough distribution conversations to come over the long-term with ESPN’s outside cable partners. But the notion that Disney is giving up on its linear channels — from FX to Disney Channel to Freeform — is misguided, he said.

A prime example of how well Disney is making its linear and streaming assets work together is the new FX drama series “The Old Man.” The detective drama, starring Jeff Bridges, premiered on June 16 on FX’s linear channel and was available for streaming on Hulu after midnight. The later episodes will also follow the same “non-cannibalistic” windowing process, he said.

“We’re actually reaching more parts of the audience than we otherwise would have with just a streaming or linear component. And that’s the criticality of DMED is that we’re able to look across all of these platforms, and not at the expense of another one,” Daniel said. “Fundamentally, we’re going to drive streaming growth. We have our our goals, we are going to hit those goals. But we can also have tremendous success in networks and theatrical.”

Daniel was elevated to his current post in October 2020, as part of the massive restructuring of Disney’s operations into two primary units: DMED for content and Disney Parks, Experiences and Products for the theme parks, cruises and consumer products. Daniel outlined his path through the Mouse over the past two decades as he explained how he made his initial connection with Bob Chapek, who was a division head and now CEO.

Daniel made his way through the corporate strategy and business development teams. He worked with Chapek in distribution and consumer products, before moving to Walt Disney Imagineering as president of operations in 2017. That job was the best preparation for managing the considerable revenue-generating responsibilities he holds today, Daniel said.

It was invaluable to be “in one of most creative organizations in the Walt Disney Company in the world and really getting a sense of the passion and heart that goes into creating things that have entertained people for 50 years and will entertain them for the next 50,” he said.

Daniel was pressed on how content greenlights and cancellations are handled within Disney in the new structure, given the separation between DMED and the content production groups led by Dana Walden on the TV side and Alan Bergman in film. Daniel said it was a collaborative process that is informed by data and insights as well as the needs of the many individual platforms that Disney has, linear and streaming.

Daniel noted that he was in a similar situation when he ran the business side of the Imagineering group.

“This experience gave me more insight and preparation for this role than I would have thought in that I was in a creative group and another group had the business decisions,” he said.

“I learned a lot about a creative process,” Daniel added. “But I also was able to understand what’s it like to not have control over ultimate business decisions. So you fast-forward to this new organization that is two years old next month … There’s incredibly talented content teams that are making things that are entertaining people all over the world. I feel like I have a bit of understanding of what that’s like having spent time in a creative organization without that ultimate authority, where I know that collaboration is absolutely critical. You can’t operate a business without having a true appreciation and connection with that creative group.”

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