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Disney has a new CEO, but its old CEO isn’t going away quite yet

Bob Chapek, who ran Disney’s parks business, is the new boss. But Bob Iger, the old boss — and one of the most powerful people in media — isn’t really leaving.

Bob Iger, left, is stepping down as Disney CEO. The man standing next to him, Bob Chapek, is replacing him.
Screenshot via Disney
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Bob Iger, one of the most powerful media executives in the world, is no longer the CEO of Disney.

But Iger isn’t going away: In a surprise announcement Tuesday, Disney said Iger would step down as the company’s leader — but will be the company’s executive chair and will spend most of the next two years running the company’s “creative endeavors.”

Disney’s new CEO, former parks boss Bob Chapek, will report to Iger.

All of which means ... insert shrug emoji here, for now. Iger had previously said he was going to leave his Disney job, but he kept finding reasons to stick around. Now he says he has actually left his Disney job but is still sticking around.

Iger’s for-the-record logic, which he laid out in a quickly scheduled conference call with investors, was that after buying much of Rupert Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox and then launching his company’s big move into streaming last year, the major structural changes he wanted to make have been made.

Now, he said, he has decided that “I should be spending as much time possible on the creative side of our business … because that becomes the biggest priority.”

Both the timing of Iger’s announcement and the logic of leaving so much time to transition in a replacement are a bit head-scratching. On the other hand, Iger’s initial ascent into the Disney CEO job was head-scratching, too: Back in 2005, when Iger took over from the legendary then-CEO Michael Eisner, conventional wisdom was that Iger, a former weatherman turned Disney suit, didn’t have the creative muscles to steer Disney.

But from a corporate perspective, at the very least, Iger turned out to be just fine: He built the company’s reach with three major acquisitions, buying Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Pixar at prices that now seem like wild bargains (and, notably, he ended up not buying Vice Media, a deal that seemed like a foregone conclusion at one point and now would have looked like a disaster); he pushed Disney’s film studio into a strategy that focused almost exclusively on giant tentpole movies like Star Wars sequels and endless Marvel iterations; and steered the company into direct competition with Netflix with what appears to have been the very successful launch of its Disney+ streaming service.

Chapek, meanwhile, has a very low profile outside of Disney but had long been floated as a potential successor to Iger. Chapek has run the parks business — a huge part of Disney’s operations — for the past five years; before that, he ran its consumer products business, and before that he ran Disney’s film distribution businesses. In the past few years, Kevin Mayer, Disney’s strategy boss who was put in charge of Iger’s streaming plans, was also supposed to be a contender.

But on the call Tuesday, Iger said that Disney’s board of directors had “identified Bob quite some time ago as [his] likely successor”; two current Disney executives told me the same thing. “Bob Chapek was the emergency guy in the board envelope for a while,” one of them said.

What Disney is trying to tell Wall Street — and consumers who care about the management of one of the world’s most important media companies — is that they shouldn’t expect things to change soon: If you like Disney’s Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar movies, you’re going to keep getting those for years to come; if you like Disney+ and Disney’s other streaming services, like Hulu, you’ll keep liking those, too.

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