The time has come to augment the endangered species list, with Hollywood media moguls as the latest entries. They used to be the loudest voices in the room, but now you need a scorecard to figure out who’s in charge of what.
Consider this week: The CEOs of AT&T and Time Warner took the stand in federal court to slam the Justice Department for opposing their vaunted merger (what will be the fate of CNN and HBO?). Les Moonves must audition again for the (dubious?) privilege of running the newest proposed iteration of CBS-Viacom. With the abrupt dismissal of Gary Barber, MGM shareholders are looking for a new leader and business plan (will the Mark Burnett attachment hold firm?). And tense meetings continue within the newly forged Disney-Fox empire to hammer out a new power structure (will Rupert Murdoch truly limit his clout to the Fox News propaganda machine?). SEC filings revealed that Comcast’s bid for Fox was 16% higher than Disney’s, but Disney still won.
Meanwhile, the habitually close-mouthed titans at Comcast continue to brood over lost deals, mulling whether to toss $30 billion or so to buy part of Sky (could Lionsgate become yet another target?). Comcast last year devoured DreamWorks Animation so effortlessly that only Jeffrey Katzenberg seemed to notice. (Katzenberg, meanwhile, has had to delay the start of his new company, WndrCo, because his key partners among the majors are befuddled by all the merger frenzy.)
And there are still other tremors out there: What are Sony’s plans for Hollywood and vice versa — Tony Vinciquerra, perhaps the quietist voice in the room, has yet to set forth his overall road map. And speaking of road maps, Hollywood has yet to fully assimilate the emerging strategies of Netflix, Amazon, Apple or other newbies browsing along its borders.
To those of us who have been around awhile, the present maelstrom poses a sharp contrast to the era when tough-minded mavens like Steve Ross, Charles Bluhdorn, Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone or, yes, the original Rupert Murdoch, presided over their global chess game. When Murdoch annexed a supposedly hot social networking entity like MySpace from under Redstone’s nose, Redstone instantly reacted by firing his CEO, Tom Freston, not realizing that MySpace was a loser. Michael Eisner shocked Hollywood by annexing the ABC Network, later anointing agent Michael Ovitz to run his empire rather than entrusting it to a former TV weatherman named Bob Iger.
While Hollywood’s CEOs of a generation ago were rigid and dictatorial, they were at least staunchly dedicated to their product. They were also readily accessible to the media, often venting about rivalries and dropping hints of tactical changes. By contrast, today’s most stable corporate management, Comcast, remains steadfastly invisible to the press, its overseer, Brian Roberts, hovering close to his new protective fortress in Philadelphia.
Amid the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, attention this week is focused on a relatively obscure judge named Richard Leon, who must rule on the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner deal. Jeffrey Bewkes of TW and Randall Stephenson of AT&T this week refuted the Justice Department’s contention that the deal could raise the cost of cable and satellite TV service. Both ducked the question of whether Donald Trump’s disdain for CNN prompted the Justice Department’s opposition.
Stephenson is on tricky ground: If the deal is approved, will Hollywood welcome the ambitious but unknown phone man? He completed a $49 billion deal for DirecTV in 2015 but abandoned his takeover of what is now T-Mobile US because of government opposition.
If Leon looks kindly on the so-called vertical merger, that decision will trigger several other important deals already in the works, resulting in yet another wave of consolidation. And that, in turn, will still further lengthen the CEO endangered species list.