Forget Eisner: Now It's Chernin To Tribune? UPDATE: Odds Of It “Way Below 20%”

UPDATE 1:30 PM: I’ve now had time to do some reporting of my own to put perspective on the Wall Street Journal‘s — and this idea of Peter Chernin taking over Tribune Co is a real longshot. Insiders tell me that Chernin has had one meeting with one creditor who asked him about the CEO job. Chernin said no. Then he was asked about the chairman’s job. Chernin said unlikely. “They asked him if he would keep an open mind. He said OK,” one of my sources says. “He’s had no meetings or discussions whatsoever with any other creditors, the creditors’ committee, with the board, with management, etc. And he is not part of any process now.” I’m told what’s happening is frankly no different than almost every media deal cooking right now where someone comes to Chernin and asks if he would be willing to run the company. My insiders put the odds of Chernin taking over Tribune Co “way below 20%”. Meanwhile, the best guess is that the timing for change at Tribune Co is probably February-March at the earliest.

SATURDAY 5 AM: I’ve been traveling only to return to some interesting news reports: now Peter Chernin is on the short list to possibly replace Sam Zell as chairman of the Chicago-based Tribune Co when it emerges from bankruptcy soon. Hollywood always knew that the former News Corp No. 2 who’s now the  Fox TV and film mega-producer had a second act in him as a Big Media mogul. Plus, unlike Disney’s FrankenEisner, Chernin never made it a habit to lie to the media. And Peter left News Corp on his own accord under his own terms, unlike Michael who was given the bum’s rush after a 43% no-confident vote from Disney shareholders and losing the chairman title in 2004. The news that Chernin is one of the candidates being “sounded out” by Tribune Co’s creditors comes on the eve of an expected bankruptcy exit filing. The plan has the support of the leading lenders and debtholders one of whom, John Angelo of NYC hedge fund Angelo Gordon & Co, was trying to muscle his childhood pal Eisner into the top spot. The selection of Eisner, who’s been buying up Tribune debt on Angelo’s advice, would be a huge mistake. The selection of Chernin, however, would make a lot of sense. “People familiar with the matter said Mr. Chernin is being considered, and might be interested in, heading Tribune’s new board. His spokesman said he isn’t interested in the CEO job but declined to comment on whether he was approached about or is interested in becoming chairman,” reported the Wall Street Journal which is owned by News Corp which used to employ Chernin and therefore has an inside track on the info.

Right now, both top jobs at Tribune Co are vacant because of the management chaos there following revelations of a frat house culture that permeated the poorly run place. Randy Michaels just resigned as CEO, and Zell can’t be replaced quickly enough. Right now a 4-person caretaker management is in charge, including LA Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein who used to run DirecTV. According to news reports, Tribune creditors started seeking new board members this past summer via executive recruiters Spencer Stuart while the creditors and lenders themselves have been feeling out potential chairman and CEO candidates from among the past and present Big Media moguls. The publishing and broadcasting company has been in Chapter 11 since December 2008.

You may recall my reporting that Eisner’s BFF wanted him to replace Zell atop Tribune Co once it emerged from bankruptcy, which owns the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, other major newspapers as well as 23 TV stations. Not only are Eisner and Angelo childhood pals who grew up together but “he was my sidekick from the age of 6,” Eisner said in his autobiography about Angelo, whose mother was in turn Eisner’s mother’s BFF. Even now, the two men remain best friends and Angelo’s son Jesse (an editor at the New York Post) is Eisner’s godson. Eisner even devotes a chapter to Angelo Gordon & Co in his new book, Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed and describes Angelo as someone who “I know as well as perhaps anyone, aside from my own wife and children.” Angelo Gordon & Co has a whopping $8.6 billion in claims on Tribune. Many examples of Eisner’s history of lying to the media when he was chairman/CEO of the Walt Disney Co came out during the shareholders lawsuit against Disney because of Eisner’s hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz when attorneys compared his public statements about the company to his private memos detailing what was really happening. He also became infamous for putting together one of the most “insider” boards in corporate history. Eisner finally left Disney in 2005 with his tail between his legs and has been dabbling in Internet content and television programming. Sure, Eisner is unquestionably a shrewd and successful businessman. But he is the wrong man to lead a Big Media company especially one like Tribune needing to restore its integrity.

By contrast, Chernin had every opportunity to stay as chairman Rupert Murdoch’s president/COO, so his 2009 decision to walk away when his 5-year contract expired June 30th after a prolonged negotiation was shocking to Hollywood and Wall Street alike. Then again, Chernin himself liked to tell people, “I’m just warming the seat for a Murdoch.” Chernin departed with an unprecedented-for-Hollywood golden parachute, undoubtedly the biggest and richest producing deal for the Fox studio/network because among other things it included his rightling, to “require” the company to enter into a 6-year deal to buy films or TV shows from him. And he’s been busy for the past 18 months getting many projects going.

A literature major from the University of California Berkeley, Chernin got his show business start making movies of the week. The 59-year-old joined News Corp in 1989 and has served as prez/COO since October 1996. He occupied one of the biggest infotainment jobs in the world, what with News Corp having total assets of about $50 billion and total annual revenues of approximately $33 billion before the financial crisis. He ran a diversified global media company with operations in eight industry segments: filmed entertainment; television; cable network programming; direct broadcast satellite television; magazines and inserts; newspapers and information services; book publishing; and other. Chernin had an “out” clause in his contract in case he was offered something better, like a chairman or CEO job. He was rumored for top jobs at Apple, Yahoo, even the Obama adminsitration. On the other hand, at the time of his leaving, Chernin’s total compensation package of $28.8 million made him better paid than Rupert Murdoch, who earned $27.5 million and controlled roughly 40% of News Corps stock. I do know it grated on Chernin that Murdoch often pursued an inchoate business strategy that revolved around Rupert’s whims, like buying the Wall Street Journal‘s parent company Dow Jones, even if they didn’t make sense financially. I’ve no doubt Chernin could fix Tribune Co.

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