Reasons Apple won’t buy Disney

Apple campus sign

Lately, there’s been rumors in tech, media, and financial circles that Apple might buy Disney. The idea, apparently, is that the home of the Macintosh, iPhone, and Apple TV+ might buy the home of Mickey Mouse, Marvel, “Star Wars,” and ESPN.

The supposed motivations for this range from Apple needing content for its new Vision Pro headset and other technologies to Disney being in a business slump (flops at the box office, ESPN facing revenue drops with cord cutting, etc.). While it’s plausible Disney could sell a few of its assets (such as ABC, which Disney bought in 1996), the idea of Apple buying Disney outright strikes me as nonsense.

While both Apple and Disney have had ties in the past (see Steve Jobs and Pixar), that doesn’t mean they belong under the same roof. I’ve often considered Disney as the “Apple” of the media world: Disney values being independent; it emphasizes a “premium” experience in terms of its products and pricing (a trip to Six Flags isn’t exactly comparable price-wise to a trip to Disney World); and has specific creative philosophies, with animation in particular ingrained into its DNA.

Yes, Disney is a money-grubbing, massive conglomerate (as the ongoing Hollywood strikes show), just like its rivals (Comcast, Warner Bros. Discovery, etc.). Still, there’s plenty of reasons why Apple and Disney aren’t merging.

Disney values being independent

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statues
Photo by HenningE (Pixabay)

As far as I can tell, Disney’s the only major Hollywood studio that hasn’t been sold to new corporate owners in its 100 years of existence. Going back to Walt’s heyday (and probably a legacy of Walt himself), the Mouse House has valued calling its own shots, no matter how bleak things get. See its actual nadir as a company, the 1970s and early 1980s, which Disney’s current movie slump doesn’t come close to approaching. Disney’s also fended off a few hostile takeover attempts, including Comcast trying to buy Disney in 2004. Wikipedia states they were mostly interested in gaining ownership of ESPN; instead, Comcast ended up buying NBC Universal in 2011.

In comparison, there’s Disney’s equally-as-long-lived major rival (also turning 100 in 2023) Warner Brothers, the home of the DC Comics superheroes, Looney Tunes, Cartoon Network, and Hanna-Barbera. Within the past 40 years, Warner Bros. has been sold or merged multiple times:

  • Merged with Time, Inc. in 1990 (to form Time Warner).
  • Merged with AOL in 2001 (to form AOL Time Warner), a disaster that led to Warner spinning off AOL several years later.
  • Bought by AT&T in 2016 (completed in 2018, becoming WarnerMedia).
  • Spun off from AT&T and merged with Discovery in 2021, forming Warner Bros. Discovery.

The recent lack of stability in ownership (being sold twice in the past decade?), and the various owners’ different motivations and philosophies, has certainly been one factor in Warner’s recent problems. That’s on top of Warner Bros.’ mercurial-at-best treatment of its cartoon properties, dating back to animation’s Golden Age era with the Looney Tunes. (A YouTube video on the history of Looney Tunes on TV does an excellent job outlining such.)

Yes, there’s been plenty of classics produced under the Warner Bros. shield logo, and Warner certainly appreciates the money/fame earned from Batman or Bugs Bunny. Still, too often, Warner’s owners are indifferent bean counters toward their properties, as seen by the multiple ownership changes and recent purging of animation from Max. (Including part of the Looney Tunes catalog, the one animation property that should have a permanent home on a Warner-owned streaming service.) If “90 Day Fiance” or “Harry Potter” remakes make more money, too bad Cartoon Network? If anything, some of Warner’s greatest animation successes seem to come in spite of their owners-du-jour, rather than because of them.

Thus, I imagine Disney doesn’t want Mickey Mouse or Disney World reduced to being a spreadsheet line between iPad chargers and Mac Minis as an Apple subsidiary. They want to make their own decisions, without worrying about possibly being sold to owners who’re penny-pinching or apathetic. Like Apple, Disney values being able to pursue and control their own creative philosophies, as well as promoting a “premium” experience—and not having to share the lucrative profits that all of this can make. For Apple, see: the pricing of buying Apple stuff, or Apple TV+’s small-but-curated library. For Disney, see: the cost of a trip to Disney World, or the budgets for Disney animated features.

Politics and government

US Capitol building
Photo by JamesDeMers (Pixabay)

There’s also regulatory and political reasons against Apple buying Disney. (Sports and Apple TV+/Disney+/Hulu alone probably would cause regulatory concerns.) The Biden administration has been paying stronger than usual attention toward antitrust issues, something that would likely continue if Biden wins a second term in 2024.

Meanwhile, a DeSantis presidency would certainly see problems for Disney, given his culture war crusade against the Mouse House over the studio, well, showing LGBTQ people merely existing. Said problems would still exist if Apple wanted to buy Disney—the fact Apple CEO Tim Cook is an out gay man just adds fuel to the homophobia-driven fire.

It’s debatable if a second Trump term would be easier on a hypothetical Apple/Disney merger, as the culture war against Disney doesn’t seem as big a priority for the Donald. Granted, if Trump wins a second term, the entire country has much bigger things to worry about than who owns “Star Wars” or Marvel.

Licensing exists

Apple Store in Manhattan
Apple Store in Manhattan. Photo by Anthony Dean.

The “Apple should buy Disney” rumors also seem to ignore that licensing exists. Apple doesn’t need to take on the expense, regulatory issues, and management issues involved in buying Disney. Instead, licensing the rights to use Disney’s properties would be a much easier move.

For example, Apple TV+’s biggest animation property is the “Peanuts” franchise. Instead of buying the franchise, Apple instead holds exclusive digital rights on Charlie Brown and company’s animation library. If you want to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” your only option (besides buying the DVD/Blu-ray) is subscribing to Apple TV+. The same goes for new content, as new “Peanuts” specials are being produced for Apple TV+.

If Apple really feels they need ESPN, “The Owl House,” or “The Mandalorian” to prop up whatever new tech they’re developing, paying to license those will certainly be a lot easier than buying “SportsCenter,” Luz, and Grogu outright. It also spares Apple being on the hook for everything from re-ordering “Princess and the Frog” napkins for Disneyland to whether to renew “Abbott Elementary” for another season on ABC.

Basically, one doesn’t need to buy the whole supermarket because they want a package of paper towels.

The media conglomerates likely to be sold: Warner Bros. and Paramount

On a semi-related note, there are two major media conglomerates that are more likely targets for an acquisition than Disney: Warner Bros., for the reasons listed above, and Paramount.

For the latter, Paramount is fairly small as far as media conglomerates go. The Hollywood Reporter lists the market cap (i.e. what their stock is worth) for the major media and tech conglomerates:

  • Apple: $2.8 trillion
  • Amazon: $1.45 trillion
  • Netflix: $193 billion
  • Comcast: $187 billion
  • Disney: $158 billion
  • Warner Bros. Discovery: $35 billion
  • Fox Corp.: $16 billion
  • Paramount: $11 billion

Paramount would be a cheap purchase, while also providing its new owner a popular and sizable media library. While they don’t have Mickey Mouse or “Star Wars,” Paramount does have SpongeBob SquarePants and “Star Trek.” The mountain logo conglomerate also has numerous other properties, ranging from “Yellowstone” to CBS’ dramas to sports.

Conclusion

I can see Disney deciding to sell off some assets if it needs money. However, I don’t see Apple buying Disney. Disney values being creatively and financially independent; Apple likely doesn’t want or need to deal with buying and running a massive legacy media conglomerate, especially when it can license properties instead; if Apple does need to buy a legacy media conglomerate, Warner Bros. or Paramount would be vastly cheaper options; and there’s political and regulatory uncertainty now and in the near future surrounding such a merger.

I’m sure such a sale makes sense for Wall Street investors who just view Disney as interchangeable intellectual property. But even if it’s only looked at financially, such a merger doesn’t make sense for Disney or Apple.

Apple Campus” by bfishadow is licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Flickr / cropped from original)

Anthony Dean

Anthony Dean is the owner of Diverse Tech Geek and Diverse Media Notes.

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