By Lisa Richwine and Aishwarya Venugopal
(Reuters) - The force of "Star Wars" lifted Walt Disney Co <DIS.N> shares on Thursday as the promise of a new film trilogy overshadowed disappointing quarterly results and struggles at the media company's television business.
The storied movie studio and theme park operator is scrambling to keep viewers who are abandoning its current top money maker, cable networks. The power of its characters and brands are the reason many investors stick with the company despite its challenges.
Disney shares rose more than 1 percent after Chief Executive Bob Iger said Disney had struck a deal with Rian Johnson, director of upcoming film "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," to create a new trilogy in the blockbuster science fiction series.
A live-action "Star Wars" TV series also is being developed for a streaming service that Disney is launching to capture online audiences, Iger said.
Disney shares rose about 1 percent from their Thursday closing price to $103.57 after the "Star Wars" announcements, reversing an initial falloff after Disney's results raised concerns about cable subscriptions.
Subscribers and advertising revenue both fell at ESPN, the sports powerhouse that is seen as a proxy for Disney's ability to fight the rapid migration of audiences to online viewing. Affiliate revenue rose and overall results at ESPN were comparable to the prior year for the quarter that ended in September, Disney said.
Total revenue from Disney's cable business, the largest unit which includes ESPN and the Disney Channel, fell marginally to $3.95 billion in the fourth quarter, missing the $4.06 billion consensus of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
To address challenges in its TV networks business, Disney is developing family-friendly streaming services that it will sell directly to consumers to compete with Netflix Inc <NFLX.O> and other rivals. Building those businesses tops the company's agenda for the next year, Iger told analysts on a conference call.
"We believe creating a direct-to-consumer relationship is vital to the future of our media businesses, and it's our highest priority this year," he said.
New Disney releases will go to the company's own service rather than Netflix, starting in 2019, and Iger on Thursday said the new service would be priced "substantially below" Netflix, a reflection of having less content.
Disney's sports-focused service will launch in early 2018 and will be called ESPN Plus, Iger said.
Investors remain concerned about Disney's cable business and were buoyed by the potential of the "Star Wars" franchise and the pricing of the streaming service, Tigress Financial Partners analyst Ivan Feinseth said. "The Last Jedi," hitting theatres in December, could ring up $2 billion in global box office sales, he said.
Disney shares have had a difficult year, falling roughly 1 percent, while the S&P 500 has risen 15 percent.
Disney also held talks in recent weeks about buying some of Twenty-First Century Fox's <FOXA.O> film and TV businesses, according to media reports, which could bring Disney more content to compete with Netflix and others.
Disney did not comment on the Fox talks on the call with investors.
Disney recently traded at 16 times expected earnings, compared with 14 times earnings for Time Warner and 13 times earnings for Fox, according to Thomson Reuters data.
A two-day closing of Disney's Florida resorts amid a hurricane and the cancellation of an animated movie were among one-time items that reduced operating income by about $275 million, or about 11 cents per share, the company said.
Disney's movie business generated revenue of $1.4 billion in the quarter, down about 21 percent and missing analysts' average estimate of $1.61 billion. Broadcast revenue of $1.51 billion missed Wall Street's target of $1.69 million, and Disney's theme parks posted revenue of $4.67 billion, just missing expectations of $4.70 billion.
Disney's total revenue fell to $12.78 billion in the quarter ended Sept. 30 from $13.14 billion a year earlier.
Net income attributable to the company declined to $1.75 billion from $1.77 billion.
Excluding items, it earned $1.07 per share.
Analysts on average had expected an adjusted profit of $1.13 per share and revenue to rise to $13.23 billion.
(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Aishwarya Venugopal in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Henderson, Savio D'Souza and Lisa Shumaker)