LOS ANGELES – When Walt Disney Co. (DIS) Chief Executive Robert Iger (search) forged a deal to put his company's content on Apple Computer's iPods, it said a lot about how the Mouse's new boss will run the show.
Last week's deal accented Iger's call for media companies to acknowledge ever-changing delivery systems for content. Iger has, in the past, suggested release windows be squeezed on theatrical films so that home videos can get out earlier.
At the same time, it also highlighted the olive branch the Disney chief is extending to Apple (AAPL) chief Steve Jobs (search). Jobs also is chairman and chief executive of Pixar (PIXR) , the animated film distribution partner with which Disney has had strained relations in the past, and seeks to renew that partnership.
"Strategically, I think they're doing all the right things," said Mike Florin, media analyst for TIAA-CREF, which has 15.5 million Disney shares. "It seems like he's going to push for changes."
The early returns on Iger are positive but it is unclear whether Disney's new chief is making real inroads, or that he's simply a breath of fresh air.
Iger, 54, becomes the entertainment giant's first new chief executive in 21 years, replacing embattled CEO Michael Eisner (search), and is the sixth to hold the post in the company's 82-year history.
After a tumultuous tenure, Eisner formally left Disney Oct. 1. At that time he also resigned from the board. Eisner actually had left much of the day-to-day operations of Disney to Iger months before.
During the transition, Iger also came to a truce with Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, the former company directors who launched a shareholder revolt against Eisner - and had wanted Iger, Eisner's hand-picked successor, out as well. After talks with Iger, the two recanted and said they were now comfortable with the new boss.
While it may seem Iger is moving fast, he has a big job ahead of him in filling the shoes of his predecessor, analysts say.
"Was Bob Iger my first choice? No. Frankly it's one of those things where time will tell," said Jeffrey Bronchick, chief investment officer at Reed, Connor and Birdwell, which holds 2.6 million Disney shares.
Bronchick said it will be interesting to see how Iger operates on his own, out from under the shadow of Eisner, who Bronchick called "a world-class second guesser."
The media world and investment community are waiting as well. Iger has demonstrated a willingness to patch the relations strained by Eisner, often described as a combative executive who fiercely protected the Disney assets, sometimes to a fault.
Iger came to Disney via the ABC Television Network acquisition in 1996. Prior to the buyout, he was the network's president and became ABC's chairman after Disney stepped in.
By 2000, Iger filled the post left in question for several years after Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash in 1994. Eisner tried to put friend and superagent Michael Ovitz (search) in that role in 1995, but that experiment failed after little more than a year.
Iger's toned-down style was considered the perfect complement to Eisner's mercurial personality. But whether he can take on the roles that Eisner filled is a key question.
Eisner grew up in Hollywood as a creative executive, helping lift the fortunes of ABC and Paramount Pictures (VIA) before coming to Disney. Eisner's first 10 years at Disney were wildly successful, as he revived the company's theme parks and resurrected its film operations, particularly Disney's vaunted animation department.
Some wonder whether Iger, who has focused attention on putting the company's products on modern platforms, can develop enough material to put on those new delivery systems.
It was under Iger's watch that ABC sunk to the ratings cellar after the network decided to bank heavily on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire," letting it eat up prime time slots several nights a week. When its ratings fell, the network had little material to replace it.
While ABC has turned around its fortunes recently on the strength of such hits as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," those two shows were thought to be the brainchildren of ousted network executives Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne.
TIAA-CREF's Florin, however, thinks Iger shouldn't be prejudged.
"I don't think that's fair at all," he said. "I just think it's way too early to tell how creative he is."
Disney traditionalists hope Iger pays adequate attention to the company's roots in animation and theme parks. The company's recent efforts to build the California Adventure theme park next to its flagship Disneyland property in Anaheim were thought to be half-hearted.
Disney invested what many considered to be a small amount, $750 million, in the park. Meanwhile, Asian firms who licensed the Disney name and products for their own versions of the parks have spent $4 billion or more.
And its own internal animation division - Walt Disney's first venture and the cornerstone of the company - has been decimated by layoffs in the wake of several internal flops. Animators grudgingly are adapting to increasingly popular computer-generated films such as "Shrek" and "Toy Story."
Disney will get a critical test in November when it releases "Chicken Little," its own computer-animated film. Others are in the pipeline, including "Meet The Robinsons," "American Dog" and "Rapunzel Unbraided."
Longtime investors wonder whether the company is putting the right emphasis on reviving animation.
"You get a good story, people will come to see it," said Alice Kottmyer, a longtime Disney investor and former part-time Disney Stores worker.
And while many have said the Pixar arrangement was critical for Disney, some are concerned the company will give away too much in trying to get it back.
Disney and Pixar split costs and profits on such blockbusters as "Toy Story," "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles." Their pact runs out after next year's release of "Cars."
"Getting reamed by Pixar and throwing away shareholder money for the sake of negotiating a deal is not a smart thing to do," Bronchick said. "Pixar is not the end-all in the world of animation for Disney."