Kid power generates Dis dollars

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Sports and theme parks helped Disney blow past quarterly earnings estimates, but there was no doubt about the franchises that Robert Iger was most enthusiastic about Tuesday: "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical."

The CEO chatted up both properties for several minutes before even mentioning ESPN or ABC during a conference call with analysts.

Iger raved about the record-setting opening of the 3-D theatrical release "Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert" as an example of content that "highlights our mission perfectly," melding new technologies to create unique entertainment.

Besides big boxoffice, a hit TV show and 8 million CDs sold — and counting — Iger said Disney also profits from the boost in traffic to Disney.com caused by Miley Cyrus, the 15-year-old phenom aka Hannah Montana.

Meanwhile, "High School Musical" has accounted for 15 million DVDs and 15 million CDs sold, plus the franchise is on display in an ice show, at theme parks and in at least 2,500 amateur productions.

Video games based on "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical" also are a boon to Disney, and Iger credited the titles — along with Nintendo's Wii and DS devices — for a spike in interest among girls in a medium long associated with boys and young men.

Video games from Disney Interactive Studios, in fact, helped the company's consumer products division to lead all other business units in growth of revenue and operating income.

Iger said that while in the past consumer products were dependent on Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and "Toy Story," it now has princesses, "Hannah Montana," "High School Musical," "Cars" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchises to draw on.

He expects the Jonas Brothers to be another blockbuster franchise, complete with one or more video game titles.

Although it has been eight years since "Toy Story 2" was released, Iger said that franchise contributes $400 million in retail merchandise sales annually, proving his often-made point that product stamped "Disney" (or Disney-Pixar) has an enviable shelf life.

"Toy Story 3" is due out in 2010 and will be preceded by 3-D releases of its two predecessors, Iger said.

Disney reported net income of $1.25 billion in its fiscal first quarter ending Dec. 29, down from $1.7 billion a year earlier, when results were boosted by the sale of Disney's interests in Us Weekly and E! Entertainment.

On a per-share basis, Disney earned 63 cents, crushing estimates of 52 cents, on revenue that grew 9% to $10.45 billion, also above analysts' expectations.

"Disney has incredible creative momentum," said Steven Birenberg, a money manager specializing in media investments at Northlake Capital Management. "New properties are regularly created, and old properties are revived and extended."

Shares of Disney, down 3% to $30.07 during the regular session, leapt 6% in after-hours trading Tuesday when the earnings were announced.

Disney's studio entertainment business was the laggard, posting flat revenue of $2.64 billion and a 15% drop in operating income to $514 million. Disney said tough comparisons were the culprit as strong sales for "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Ratatouille" and "Jungle Book: Platinum Release" didn't measure up to last year's "Cars," "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Little Mermaid: Platinum Release."

The consumer products business, Disney's smallest segment, boasted a hefty 29% increase in revenue to $870 million and a 38% jump in operating income to $322 million.

Revenue for media networks, the largest segment, was up 10% to $4.17 billion as operating income rose 28% to $908 million. Cable revenue outpaced broadcast, with the former up 13% to $2.41 billion and the latter up 6% to $1.76 billion.

Cable was helped by advertising and affiliate revenue growth at ESPN and big sales of the "HSM2" DVD, while primetime ad revenue at ABC helped broadcasting.

The parks and resorts unit scored an 11% rise in revenue to $2.77 billion and a 25% leap in operating income.

Iger and CFO Tom Staggs said they see little evidence of a slowing economy, offering as evidence rising attendance at Disney parks in the U.S., Paris and Hong Kong.

Addressing several questions about the ongoing writers strike, Iger and Staggs said it has had no impact on Disney's bottom line thus far and that the company ought to see cost savings as fewer TV pilots are shot.

Iger also predicted that advertisers will expect some sort of "upfront" presentation despite the writers strike, though he called the expensive process "an anachronism" at a time when TV networks are trying to rein in costs.
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