Former Walt Disney Co Chief Executive Bob Iger is returning to the media company as CEO less than a year after he retired, a surprise appointment that comes as the entertainment company struggles to turn its streaming TV services into a profitable business. Iger, who retired last year after 15 years as chief executive, has agreed to serve as CEO for two more years, Disney said in a statement late on Sunday. He will replace Bob Chapek, who took over as Disney CEO in February 2020.
While Chapek steered Disney through the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney disappointed investors this month with an earnings report that showed continued losses at its streaming media unit that includes Disney+.
“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,” Susan Arnold, chair of Disney’s board, said in the statement.
In June, Disney’s board voted unanimously to extend Chapek’s contract for three years.
Through Chapek’s short tenure, Disney became engulfed in an internal culture war after being accused of remaining silent on Florida legislation that would limit classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Iger exited Disney on a high note as the company led the entertainment industry’s battle against Netflix in the streaming wars. The economic slowdown and high interest rates have hurt Disney+ as the company prepares for deep cost cuts.
“I am an optimist, and if I learned one thing from my years at Disney, it is that even in the face of uncertainty—perhaps especially in the face of uncertainty—our employees and Cast Members achieve the impossible,” Iger said in a memo to employees seen by Reuters.
The leadership change caught employees by surprise, one company source said.
Chapek guided Disney through the pandemic, one of the most tumultuous periods in the company’s nearly 100-year history, but ultimately Disney decided that its future was in better hands with Iger.
Away from the pandemic, Chapek had a short but bumpy tenure as the head of Disney. Chapek, who served as chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products before taking over for Iger, found himself dealing with issues regarding pay with Scarlett Johansson, one of the company’s biggest stars, as well as Disney’s battles with Florida, and its own employees, regarding the state’s controversial bill restricting certain LGBTQ topics in the classroom.
That, in particular, was a flashpoint for Chapek’s stint at Disney. In March, he was forced to apologize for his silence on Florida’s controversial bill after initially declining to comment on it.
“Speaking to you, reading your messages, and meeting with you have helped me better understand how painful our silence was,” Chapek wrote in a letter to employees.
Chapek spent weeks doing damage control, telling employees that Disney was “increasing our support for advocacy groups to combat similar legislation in other states” and that the company is “hard at work creating a new framework for our political giving that will ensure our advocacy better reflects our values.”
His public stance was in stark contrast to Iger, who took a public stance against the Florida bill.
“A lot of these issues are not necessarily political, It’s about right and wrong. So, I happen to feel and I tweeted an opinion about the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill in Florida. To me, it wasn’t about politics. It is about what is right and what is wrong, and that just seemed wrong. It seemed potentially harmful to kids,” said Iger in an interview.