The answer came on Thursday: Bob Iger.
After a carefully laid succession plan unraveled last year, and the 66-year-old chief executive signaled he would be glad to continue in the job he's held since 2005, Disney's board extended the contract of Iger, who's credited with turning the company's film business into a global powerhouse, building a sprawling theme park in Shanghai and growing its consumer products group.
Iger's new deal will keep him at Disney as CEO until July 2019. Iger also has been chairman of Disney's board since March 2012.
"Given Bob Iger's outstanding leadership, his record of success in a changing media landscape, and his clear strategic vision for Disney's future, it is obvious that the company and its shareholders will be best served by his continued leadership as the board conducts the robust process of identifying a successor and ensuring a smooth transition," Orin C. Smith, an independent board member and former Starbucks (SBUX) - Get Report president and CEO, said in a statement.
Disney was quick to note that the company's market capitalization has grown to $177 billion from $46 billion when Iger took over.
His decision to remain at Disney comes at time of enormous success at its film division offset by concerns that declining subscribers to ESPN, its largest source of profits, augers a period of contraction for the country's most popular sports network.
Sales at Disney's networks group, which includes ESPN and is the company's largest unit, posted a 2% decline in the fourth quarter. ESPN's subscriber base fell to 88.4 million at the end of 2016; it was drawing monthly user fees from more than 100 million subscribers in 2010. Mindful of declining revenue at ESPN, Disney began a review of its on-air hosts and commentators earlier this year with an eye toward lowering costs to offset expensive sports rights contracts such as its nine-year, $24-billion deal with the National Basketball Association, signed in 2014.
To reverse ESPN's subscriber losses, Iger has signed deals with all of the new multichannel online pay-TV platforms to carry the network. Those include AT&T's (T) - Get Report DirecTV Now and the recently announced YouTube TV from Alphabet (GOOGL) - Get Report . Additionally, Iger recently announced that ESPN will launch a digital direct-to-consumer ESPN service by the end of the year, matching many other networks including CBS (CBS) - Get Report and Time Warner's (TWX) HBO that have started similar platforms.
Iger agreed in summer 2013 to remain as CEO through last June, under the assumption that Disney would find the right person to fill his job. At that time, Disney's board appeared to have narrowed the choice to either Jay Rasulo, its finance chief, or Thomas Staggs. In June 2015, though, Staggs was promoted to chief operating officer, making him Iger's heir apparent.
Yet in April 2016, Disney abruptly announced that Staggs would leave the company, throwing the succession plan into disarray. For agreeing to re-sign with Disney, Iger was awarded a $5 million bonus. His total compensation during the company's fiscal 2016 was $43.9 million, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
Iger could receive a $60 million bonus as the end of Disney's fiscal 2018 if the company met its growth goal for operating income, according to Bloomberg data.