Disney's new initiatives aimed at mobile device users

Disney says mobile initiatives aimed at staying close to consumers, raising bar on creativity and making money

Walt Disney Co. on Friday revealed a slate of digital initiatives, announcing a new partnership with Wal-Mart around movies, teasing the unveiling of a redesigned ESPN.com and showing how a growing number of YouTube stars would have their own apps.

During a media event Friday at the Disney lot in Burbank, Chief Executive Bob Iger and senior leaders from each of the company's five divisions said that traffic from smartphones and tablets is surging as they become the most-used devices for many of its consumers. Children especially are turning to tablets, and there’s no shortage of competitors trying to capture the attention of one of Disney’s key customer bases.

But there are signs that Disney’s efforts are working. Many of Disney’s mobile initiatives are tied to its game-making Interactive division. Interactive posted operating income of $116 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 27 after several years of losses, Disney said last week. The total number of daily users of Disney mobile games, such as “Star Wars: Commander,” has risen 51% since last fall, said Disney Interactive President Jimmy Pitaro.

In fact, the world has spent more time (31 billion minutes) playing the “Frozen Freefall” game than it spent watching the actual movie, Pitaro said.

The push to mobile has extended to its bread-and-butter movie business. The agreement with Wal-Mart, which follows similar deals with Apple, then Google, means someone who buys a Disney movie through Wal-Mart’s Vudu online service beginning next week would then have free access to the movie through iTunes, Google Play or a Disney application after linking their accounts.

ESPN will mark the 20th anniversary of its first website April 1 with a redesign that emphasizes personalization, videos and consistency in look regardless of the device being used. Mobile traffic to ESPN.com has tripled in the past year, and about 55% of the 94 million unique users of ESPN.com in September were exclusively coming from mobile devices, the company said.

The relaunch will kick off in the coming weeks with the SportsCenter mobile app that millions rely on to check on sports scores being renamed ESPN.

At Maker Studios, the video content network that Disney purchased for up to $950 million earlier this year, computer programmers have built a Web system that allows the most prominent of its 55,000 stars to customize and launch mobile apps with a few clicks.

Since the videos exist outside YouTube or another network, Maker won’t have to share advertising revenue from views on the new hub. Driving downloads of one-dimensional apps could be an issue, but Maker Chief Technology Officer Ryan Lissack noted that a single post on Twitter and Facebook by video game fanatic PewDiePie led to 100,000 downloads. And more than 50% of Maker’s entire audience is viewing on mobile.

Mobile consumption of long-form video is up, too. Disney/ABC Television Group said 29% of all viewing on its apps is started on mobile devices, compared with 34% on smart TVs and the rest on the regular computers.

Disney also teased two other initiatives. It plans to bring resort and theme park ticket purchasing to its My Disney Experience mobile app. Separately, Disney's publishing arm said it would announce Dec. 4 a new brand, Disney Imagicademy, that addresses “a gap in the mobile marketplace when it comes to learning.”

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