Miller and Ferguson

Miller and Ferguson

New books dissected over email.
Oct. 12 1998 2:10 PM

Miller and Ferguson

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Dear Mark,

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Reading Eisner's book, you might not envy the life of the media oligopolist. The poor man seems beset with worries. He certainly doesn't get much sleep--why, he's sending emails to the ABC arm of his octopus at 2 AM and playing fantasy hoops on-line with ESPN SportsZone at 3 AM. And still he pulls onto Dopey Drive at the lot by 9! His No. 2s have been a source of grief--tears, in the case of Frank Wells' untimely death, and aggravation from Katzenberg and Ovitz. Competitors, agents, partners: all are unrelenting. No wonder his ticker has troubles, which has consigned him to vegetable platters for the rest of his life. He hardly has any fun when he manages to join the other oligopolists at Herb Allen's do in Sun Valley--no bonhomie or booze, just dealmaking in the parking lot and trips to the hospital. Why, even back in LA there's no time to join a country club!

Eisner's life is consumed with building the profitability of the Walt Disney Co. and thus earning the big bucks he is not shy about taking for himself. Part of that effort involves spreading his wings in the way that most troubles you, swallowing a network here, a sports franchise there. "Broadening the brand," he calls it. He's been high on this cross-fertilization since at least his days at Paramount, when he couldn't get parent Gulf & Western's chief Charlie Bluhdorn to see the magic in it. No synergies are lost now, boy. But it turns out that the web of common interests is not so new--way back when Walt Disney himself was opening Disneyland in the mid-1950s, the ABC network staked him to the tune of a one-third interest and shilled for the park with the beginning broadcasts of what became the Wonderful World of Color series. That was 40 years before Disney actually bought ABC.

For all of Disney's extensive holdings, Eisner & Co. appear consumed, as all of us in the media are, with chasing down countless stray minds that have countless choices of entertainment, news, and other stimuli. Disney's reach has frequently exceeded its grasp--Eisner admits problems with live-action films, with theme parks, with ABC today. Assets do not assure audiences. At root, this guy is a TV and movie mogul who draws oxygen from box-office receipts and ratings points and who is locked in perpetual battle with others like him and with God's great outdoors for the eyeballs and eardrums of the masses who give him that life's breath. But blessedly, he wants us only for our money. If his book is any indication, he pays close attention to what the national press (99% of which he doesn't own) says about the workings of Disney as a business, but zero heed to those on the political left or right who fret over its pervasive cultural influence.

Work in Progress contains two other redeeming notes about Eisner and Disney. The first is that even in the depths of the man's woes, he spurned the intervention of Deepak Chopra. (The short passage is almost wickedly funny.) And second, as part of its never-ending efforts to get and stay in the face of impressionable legions, the company cut the price of videos of even its animation classics (before all that subliminal sexuality!) to $30. Otherwise ill-tempered children thus can be mesmerized for hours, days, even years for pennies an installment. If this be an octopus, let its tentacles unfurl.

Yours,

Tim

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Mark Crispin Miller is professor of media studies at New York University and author of Seeing Through Movies. Tim Ferguson is an assistant managing editor of Forbes magazine. He is based in Los Angeles. This week they discuss Work in Progress, by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz (Random House; 464 pages; $27.95).