The Walt Disney Company, known for its iconic entertainment brands, announced a massive strategic shift Sunday night, with former chief executive Bob Iger returning to the role he left in 2020.
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Iger, who is coming out of retirement after serving as CEO from 2005 to 2020 and executive chairman until his 2021 retirement, will replace Bob Chapek, the chief executive officer who succeeded him just two years ago.
The stunning development comes as Disney, once an overwhelmingly trusted brand for kids’ content, has been in the culture war crosshairs.
Disney announced Sunday night Chapek had stepped down and Iger was stepping back up for a two-year role — a move that shocked industry observers. The company’s board said Iger is uniquely positioned to help navigate Disney through difficult contemporary terrain.
“The Board has concluded that, as Disney embarks on an increasingly complex period of industry transformation, Bob Iger is uniquely situated to lead the company through this pivotal period,” board Chair Susan Arnold said of the shock move.
Arnold anticipates a “seamless transition of leadership,” considering Iger’s past connections with Disney leadership. And keeping in mind he left less than a year ago, these relationships are still fresh.
The leadership shakeup comes after Disney showed a lower fourth quarter than expected, with stocks dropping more than 40% this year. Shares hit a 20-year low after the fourth-quarter report.
Chapek, for his part, had a rocky tenure. He was forced to deal with COVID-19 shutdowns, among other challenges. Among those issues, Christians and parent groups have been protesting and pushing back against increasing LGBTQ themes in Disney’s content.
Much of the chagrin began for Disney when Chapek initially declined to wade into the debate over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act. Critics have vociferously dubbed the parental rights legislation, which took effect July 1, as the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” despite the word “gay” being absent from the text.
The law bars educators from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation from pre-K through third grade. At first, when the bill was proposed, Disney remained quiet, with Chapek taking heat for refusing to repudiate it after saying such actions from corporations are generally “counterproductive.”
But due to intense pressure, Disney reversed course and went all in. The company suddenly pledged to help efforts to repeal the law, releasing a statement March 28 that dug its heels in on the matter.
“Florida’s HB 1557, also known as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, should never have passed and should never have been signed into law,” Disney said. “Our goal as a company is for this law to be repealed by the legislature or struck down in the courts, and we remain committed to supporting the national and state organizations working to achieve that.”
SCOOP: Disney diversity and inclusion manager Vivian Ware says the company has eliminated all mentions of "ladies," "gentlemen," "boys," and "girls" in its theme parks in order to create "that magical moment" for children who do not identify with traditional gender roles. pic.twitter.com/OWsGTUoeCA
— Christopher F. Rufo (@realchrisrufo) March 29, 2022
Then, leaked videos from Disney’s “Reimagine Tomorrow Summit,” an internal employee conference, made the rounds. One of those clips showed Chapek apologizing to LGBTQ employees for “not being the ally” they needed, and pledging to enact changes.
“I pledge to be a better ally for the LGBTQ+ community,” Chapek said. “[I] apologize for not being the ally that you needed me to be. [I’m] committed to ensuring that our company lives up to its values.”
Other videos emerged as well, including one of Karey Burke, president of general entertainment at Disney, reportedly proclaiming she is the mom of pansexual and transgender children. She also discussed the quest to see “many, many LGBTQIA characters” in Disney content.
As Disney pushed further against the Parental Rights in Education Act, the situation between the company and the state of Florida, which hosts many of its parks and attractions, descended.
After months of public squabbling between Disney and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Republican leader and lawmakers in the Sunshine State upped the ante.
The Florida legislature rescinded Disney’s decades-long control of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a private government controlled by the entertainment giant; Disney’s sprawling Florida campus, which houses its theme parks, resides on that property. The district is set to dissolve in June of 2023.
Not long after, Disney Pixar released “Lightyear,” a movie inspired by “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear. The film featured a same-sex kiss and made headlines, but didn’t deliver as much at the box office as some critics expected.
The company is now preparing for the Nov. 23 release of “Strange World,” an animated film featuring a gay teen romance, as CBN News recently reported.
Iger’s replacement of Chapek comes amid all this — and more. And while some might dismiss the conservative protest and chatter against Disney, some polling earlier this year offers up some potentially calamitous reputational metrics.
A survey commissioned by NBC News and released earlier this year found just a mere 33% of respondents had a “very” or “somewhat” positive view of The Walt Disney Company. That low proportion follows a separate survey from Public Opinion Strategies, which found 77% had a favorable view of the entertainment brand just a year prior.
Plus, a separate survey unveiled as Disney was embroiled in controversy over the leaked videos and squabbling over the Parental Rights and Education Act also yielded alarming results.
“News reports reveal Disney is focusing on creating content to expose young children to sexual ideas,” read a survey question from the Trafalgar Group and the Convention of States Action. “Does this make you more or less likely to do business with Disney?”
Overall, nearly 70% of likely American voters said they are less likely to do business with Disney in response to this question, with 57% saying they are “much less likely” to engage with the brand.
Just over 9% said they are more likely to do business with the entertainment company, and 23% said there was “no difference” in their willingness to do business with Disney.
With these statistics in mind, it will be intriguing to see how Iger navigates the complex and changing business waters and the massive cultural battles raging beneath the surface.
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