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|Observations and Analysis of Disney in the News|
News Commentary from May 15 - May 21
Was 1941 Military History?
Last week, Amazon.com announced a deal with Buena Vista Pictures (distributor of Pearl Harbor) that will have an email sent to every Amazon customer purchasing a book on military history. This type of marketing agreement is becoming increasingly common in the online world, and has become an important way for companies to replace dwindling banner-advertising revenue. The users of a Web site are assets, even if not necessarily customers. In order to leverage those assets, sites can sell their user and customer data to advertisers. Of course, mailing lists are often a one-trick pony; once sold, control of that information is lost.
There are also privacy concerns. When you register for on-line services or communities, you may agree to provide highly detailed personal information in exchange for a promise that the site will not sell that information to an outside company. The courts are holding companies to these agreements. In a well-publicized case last year, an online toy company was prohibited from including its customer database in its assets during a bankruptcy sale.
Many companies are finding it possible to generate a recurring revenue by selling access to targeted groups of users, while never selling the data directly. The more detailed the demographic data, the more valuable it becomes. For example, a Web site can offer access to 20,000 women under the age of 40, who have 2 children, two dogs and a household income of over $75,000. Advertisers who want to reach that demographic will pay the site to deliver their marketing message to those uses, but will never see the individual user information.
Scrooge McDuck Couldn't Fill That Vault
Last week the Associated Press ran an interesting little piece on the increasing number of "shareholder proposals" related to executive pay. A "shareholder proposal" is an issue, initiated by a shareholder, that must be examined and voted upon at the companies annual meeting. Usually the voting items are presented by the board of directors to the shareholders, but with enough determination the shareholders themselves can bring an item to the floor.
It seems that as the markets have gone down in the past eighteen months that shareholders have been distressed to learn that the idea of executive compensation being tied to market performance is more myth than fact. Though Michael Eisner was not specifically mentioned in the article it is difficult to think about executive compensation without thinking of him. I'd like to highlight a couple of interesting proposals that I feel would go a long way towards making executive compensation at Disney (and other corporations) much more reasonable.
The first is a proposal that would truly tie compensation to market performance. A CEO's contract may stipulate that in six months the executive may purchase 100,000 shares at today's price. If the stock goes up 50% in that time frame, the executive is going to get a hefty chunk of change. This sounds fair, doesn't it? Great results generated great rewards. But what if, during the same time period the S&P 500 rose 80% and the company's industry index rose 65%? The company actually did worse than the shareholders should have expected. To remedy this, compensation bonuses should not be tied simply to the share price, but rather to performance relative to some indicator. Many people have made this suggestion, but for a clear overview of the benefits of this method, I recommend Rob Walker's piece on this idea at Slate.
The other idea is a shareholder proposal that came to the floor at this year's Disney Annual Meeting (for all the technical details read Disney's proxy statement, a document just full of interesting information). In 2000, 17% of the stock options granted by Disney went to the top five executives within the company. Disney does not issue stock options as broadly as the new economy tech companies have, but 17% still strikes many people as excessive (and I would have to agree). A proposal put forward at this year's annual meeting would have limited executive officers to no more than 10% of all options and any one officer (read: Michael Eisner) to no more than 5% of all options.
Unfortunately this proposal didn't pass (shareholder proposals rarely do) but, in my opinion, such a policy would have a positive effect on the company (and on Eisner's PR).
Universal's Imagineers Moving to Florida
The Orlando Sentinel reported that Universal is going to move it's theme park unit, Universal Creative, to Orlando. Universal Creative is Universal's answer to Walt Disney Imagineering, and is responsible for designing rides, attractions, and hotels for all of Universal's theme parks and resorts. The purpose is to align Universal Creative with the marketing group that is already based in Orlando.
Since Universal has much more opportunity for additional development in Florida (versus Southern California), the move is a good one from a business perspective. Still to be determined is how the move will affect Universal Creative as an organization. The team could be crippled, at least temporarily, if significant members of the group don't want to make the move and leave.
In the long term, though, this could be a great thing for the Orlando area. If Universal really starts to focus a strong effort at improving its competitive position versus Walt Disney World, the result could be a competitive war that would greatly benefit the vacationer and could result in a boom of activity that would boost the local economy and job market.
The fact that Universal is attempting to align its creative and marketing teams is an interesting one. The voice of the customer could become more of a factor as new additions are planned for the resort. Instead of an "if we build it they will come" mentality, a real focus on what makes guests come to Central Florida for their vacationsand what makes them returncould put renewed emphasis on customer satisfaction and less emphasis on cost control. That would translate into a better vacation experience for guests, and a better value for the dollar we spend on our trips.
Millionaire in Syndication?
Yahoo News recently reported that the hit program Who Wants to be a Millionaire may soon be developed as a syndicated show. Lots of questions remain to be answered, the most important of which are clearly whether Regis Philbin could handle the extra workload, whether the show would work without him, and whether America at large even needs that much Millionaire? After all, prime time ratings for the program have gone steadily downhill since its spectacular first season, and now the show skews heavily toward the older adult audience that advertisers (and thus ABC) try to avoid.
It would be easy to take a cynical route here, especially since the Millionaire competitor The Weakest Link has already been confirmed for syndication. Weakest Link has the extra bonus of appealing to younger viewers due to the more direct, coarse, and in-your-face attitude of the show's host, Anne Robinson. However, I'm not going to criticize Millionaire as much as you might expect. I'm not that big a fan of the show, but it's harmless entertainment, and its installation at both the Disney-MGM Studios and California Adventure guarantees some longevity. Moreover, it would be underestimating the genre to think that the program's popularity will necessarily continue to wanewitness the decades-long success of Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, or The Price is Right, for example. And Regis is not the be-all and end-all of the show; countless shows have survived with new hosts. And let's not forget: Regis is himself already a replacement . . . for the show's original host in its British incarnation.
Would You See It in a Box?
The New York Times recently ran an article about the short life of the Broadway musical, Seussical. In it, the article lamented that after less than a six month run, Seussical would close its doors on May 20th, making it one of Broadway's all-time biggest money losers. At the end of its run, it was estimated the show had lost $11 million.
By all accounts the show should have been a big hit. It certainly wasn't lacking for talent. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens were both involved (they previously brought us Ragtime and Kevin Chamberlin starred as Horton the elephant (this role has garnered him a Best Actor in a Musical Tony nomination). With few exceptions, the rest of the cast was not only talented, but fun to watch. I, for one, enjoyed the performance of newcomer Sara Gettelfinger, as Bird Girl. It was a delight to once again see Stuart Zagnit (Mayor of Whoville) who I enjoyed as Goldberg in last year's noble failure Wild Party. Further, I had a great time watching Michelle Pawk and Janine La Manna strut their stuff as Mayzie LaBird, the bird-beauty too busy to hatch her egg, and Gertrude McFuzz, the gentle bird who longs for a flashier tail.
It was rough going from the start for Seussical. Reviews from the pre-Broadway run in Boston weren't exactly glowing, with the critics calling the show bland and over-earnest. Immediate attempts were made to tweak things and improve the show. The costume designer was fired and William Ivey Long (The Music Man, Cabaret, Annie Get Your Gun and this year's The Producers, among others) was brought in to redesign the costumes. The sets were changed to make them cheerier, but perhaps most significantly, in late September, the producers brought in Rob Marshall to change the original director's staging. Despite all the band-aids applied to the show, the critics mostly panned November 30th's opening night.
So, with all the talent it had going for it, what went wrong with the Seussical? Why were audiences not flocking to see Seuss brought to life?
For me, it was quite succinct. The story was too long and too muddled. They threw in every Seuss-ism in the book actually, in all of the books. There was everything from The Cat In The Hat to The Grinch to Oh The Places You'll Go, with hints of The Butter Battle. All of which were totally irrelevant to the narrative. It's almost as if the authors of the show's book were unable to choose what Seuss tale to use, so they didn't. If the show had been pared down to just Horton and Gertrude McFuzz, and the whole storyline with the little boy, JoJo (played by a decidedly lackluster and very bored Aaron Carter at the performance I saw), dropped altogether, it would have been a tighter, more enjoyable story that would probably not have needed guest stars like Rosie O'Donnell, Cathy Rigby, and the above mentioned Aaron Carter. Maybe, just maybe, if Seussical could have defined what it was really about, it would have had a life that lasted longer than the week after the 2001 Tony nominations were announced.
Note: The article link above requires free registration, click here for a wire copy of the story.
One of the lesser-known features of MousePlanet is our News headlines in our MousePad discussion forum, where we try to direct you to any important news stories about the entire Disney company.
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