Analysts are looking to an improved performance from ABC, reviving trends at theme parks and a smooth transition in the executive suite to help boost the stock over the coming months.
Those factors should overcome negatives such as a hurricane-induced theme park operating income hit that could exceed $50 million in the September quarter. Meanwhile, Disney continues to deal with the dirty laundry aired at a Delaware trial devoted to Michael Ovitz's problematic mid-1990s tenure as chief operating officer.
Bulls hope the quarter will help Disney's stock continue its recent recovery. Shares in the company, which hit $28.41 in February on the news of
ultimately unsuccessful bid for Disney, fell as low as $20.88 in mid-August, but have since climbed more than 25%.
Disney is scheduled to release results for its fiscal fourth quarter after the market closes Thursday. Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who has been spending the week testifying at the Ovitz trial, is slated to lead a conference call with analysts following the earnings release.
For the quarter ended Sept. 30, analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call are expecting Disney to report earnings of 18 cents per share, up from 17 cents in the year-ago fourth quarter.
Revenue is expected to be $7.57 billion, up from $7 billion one year earlier. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, expect analysts, will be $1.08 billion. Earnings before interest and taxes -- a less-common cash-flow measure favored by some analysts -- is forecast, based on the median of six estimates, at $845 million.
Reiterating a buy rating on Disney and a $30 price target, UBS analyst Timothy Wallace last week wrote in a research report that ABC's success this season -- driven by popular new series such as "Desperate Housewives" -- "has significant implications" for Disney's stock.
"First, if ABC's ratings momentum continues, we believe the network can break even in cash flow in 2005," wrote Wallace, whose firm has done recent investment banking for Disney. "Also, we believe ABC's success could improve the chances for a potentially smooth CEO transition to Bob Iger, which we would view positively for DIS shares."
Iger, Disney's president and COO, is the only internal candidate to succeed Eisner. The company says it hopes to name Eisner's replacement by June of next year, though the date of Eisner's departure is less certain.
Credit Suisse First Boston's William Drewry calls Disney the top pick among media companies he follows, giving the company a buy rating and a $40 price target. CSFB has done recent banking for Disney.
Particular drivers for the stock, according to Drewry, should be improving results at the company's theme parks and cable networks operations. Cable networks revenue grew 14% in the fourth quarter to $1.62 billion, Drewry forecast in a Tuesday note, while earnings before interest and amortization -- yet another variation on Disney's cash-flow measurements -- will have grown 11% to $419 million.
For theme parks and resorts in the fourth quarter, Drewry is predicting revenue growth of 11% to $2.18 billion and EBITA growth of 4% to $278 million, excluding the hurricanes' impact. Including the hurricanes' hit, Drewry is forecasting a 14% EBITA decline to $228 million.
Disney will likely get a boost from any guidance above where Wall Street expects fiscal 2005's performance to be. Currently, the consensus is for revenue of $3.26 billion, up 5% from the fiscal 2004 consensus, and earnings per share of $1.20, up 13%.
Of course, pitfalls remain for Disney. Perhaps working too hard in the synergy department, Disney sparked a measure of outrage Monday with a fantasy sequence at the beginning of Monday Night Football featuring one of the "Desperate Housewives" stars stripping naked in a gesture of encouragement for one of the players slated to play in Monday's game.
The unexpected mixture of football, female flesh and flummoxed fans bore an eerie resemblance to
Federal Communications Commission fine-inducing Super Bowl halftime show starring Janet Jackson.
Disney rose 9 cents Wednesday to $26.62.