Activist Investor Buys Stake in Disney and Pushes for Changes

Third Point, the firm founded by billionaire investor Dan Loeb, has bought back into Disney and proposed a spinoff of ESPN, takeover of Hulu and new board members.

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By Lauren Hirsch, Benjamin Mullin and Brooks Barnes

Third Point, an activist investment firm, has bought a new stake in the entertainment giant Disney and is pushing for the company to make a number of changes, including spinning off ESPN, quickly taking full control of the streaming service Hulu and installing new board members, according a letter sent to Disney, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

Third Point, which is run by the billionaire investor Daniel S. Loeb, had recently ended a different campaign at Disney. The firm disclosed a stake in Disney in 2020, worth more than $900 million at its height, and pushed for Disney to invest more in streaming. It sold all of its shares in the company in the first quarter of this year, according to regulatory filings. Third Point did not disclose the size of its current stake in Disney, but a person with knowledge of the investment who was not authorized to speak publicly described it as close to $1 billion.

The latest campaign by Third Point presents a new challenge for Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive. The company’s board last month renewed his contract until July 2025, after a tumultuous period that thrust Disney into partisan political controversies. Disney is also still trying to rebuild its balance sheet after the height of the pandemic.

Disney’s bet on steaming, the focus of Third Point’s previous campaign, has been paying off: Disney+ added 14.4 million subscribers in the most recent quarter, far more than Wall Street had expected.

“This quarter’s results are an important proof point that Disney’s complex transformation is succeeding and our confidence in Disney’s current trajectory is such that we have, in recent weeks, repurchased a significant stake in the Company,” wrote Mr. Loeb in the letter.

Still, Disney’s stock is down about 20 percent since the start of the year, underperforming the S&P 500, amid broader industry hand-wringing over the profitability of direct-to-consumer streaming. Netflix’s shares have dropped 58 percent since January.

Disney shares were up about 2 percent on Monday following Mr. Loeb’s letter.

“We welcome the views of all our investors,” Disney said in a statement that went on to emphasize the company’s recent strong financial results. “Our independent and experienced board has significant expertise in branded, consumer-facing and technology businesses as well as talent-driven enterprises,” the statement added.

Mr. Loeb said he was encouraged by Disney’s efforts in streaming, but he said the company could move faster to shift away from cable assets in decline and toward fast-growing streaming services. In the United States, about 7.5 percent of cable customers cut the cord in the most recent quarter, up from 4 percent a year earlier, according to the research firm LightShed Partners.

Chief among Mr. Loeb’s requests, which he acknowledged may already be in the works, is buying out Comcast’s remaining stake in Hulu. In 2019, Disney said that it would acquire Comcast’s one-third stake in Hulu for at least $5.8 billion in the coming years, with the final price to be determined by independent arbiters.

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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