The Streaming Wars Commence With Game of Musical Board Seats

The rise of streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu has been a godsend for “peak TV” junkies, who can watch episodes of new hits like “Mindhunter” or standbys like “The Office” any time, any place. In November, Apple and Disney will glue even more eyeballs to TVs, tablets, and smartphones around the world by launching their own hotly anticipated services, Disney+ and Apple TV+.

The new competing services haven’t even debuted yet, but it appears as though they’ve already broken up one formerly healthy relationship. Apple revealed in an SEC filing earlier this month that Disney CEO Bob Iger resigned from its board of directors on Sept. 10. (To be fair, no one has offered a specific reason for Iger’s resignation; however, it just so happened to come on the same day that the price and release date for Apple TV+ were announced.)

Iger served as a director on the Apple board for eight years, epitomizing the symbiotic connection between Disney’s entertainment empire and Apple’s status as chief tastemaker in the technology sector. Iger and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs were personal friends, and Jobs held a spot on Disney’s board of directors until he died in 2011. Meanwhile, Disney has played a prominent role in developing apps and providing content for Apple’s mobile technology.

But don’t assume the move reflects a rift between Iger and Apple CEO Tim Cook or any other behind-the-scenes drama. The two companies will likely compete for content in the future, but Apple is making Disney+ available on its devices, and the iPhone-maker noted in a statement that it has “every expectation that our relationship with both Bob and Disney will continue far into the future.”

Doesn’t sound acrimonious. It’s possible that Iger and Apple actually made the call to separate in order to head off the scrutiny of federal regulators. The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have made it clear that they don’t look favorably on executives serving on the boards of companies that are deemed to be competitors.

Apple knows this all too well: In 2009, then-Google chief executive Eric Schmidt stepped down from his position on Apple’s board amid an FTC investigation into antitrust concerns over the companies’ competitive entanglements in the tech sector. Much like Disney+ and Apple TV+, the debut of Google’s Android phone as a competitor to the iPhone helped spark Schmidt’s departure.

The Schmidt imbroglio was part of a big game of musical chairs among tech companies at the time. Google and Apple also had a shared board member, Arthur Levinson of Genentech, who soon resigned from the board at Google. Venture capitalist John Doerr made a similar move months later, leaving the Amazon board of directors because of his position on Google’s board.

In the bigger picture, Iger’s resignation also fits with a broader trend toward limiting the involvement of CEOs on outside companies’ boards of directors. Major institutional investors such as BlackRock and Vanguard have taken active measures to discourage “overboarding” of CEOs. It all points to fewer CEOs holding outside board seats going forward.

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