Getting with the program

MEMO TO: Michael Jordan

FROM: Peter Bart

Welcome to showbiz, Michael. I figure you could use a welcome mat after the events of last week. Michael Eisner acquires CapCities and he’s proclaimed a visionary. A day later Westinghouse acquires CBS and what happens? The Los Angeles Times christens you “Err Jordan,” the New York Times says CBS competitors are convinced you don’t have a clue about the network business, and some CBS execs are saying they already miss Larry Tisch. Even Walter Cronkite believes there’s a better suitor out there.

Now, you’re renowned as a cautious man who weighs all his options, Michael, so here’s an option we’d like you to consider: You can still pack up your papers and go back to Pittsburgh. Rival bidders are hiding in the foliage; let one of them top your offer, while you find another industry to invade.

If this option seems distasteful to you, then we’d recommend the following: Get yourself a tutor to help you master the art of media-speak. If you want to make it in the network business, Michael, you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk.

Study the rhetoric of Ted Turner: He can talk about the weather but still drape his sentences in such cosmic parlance that they defy contradiction. That’s media-speak. Invite your own president, Peter Lund, to lunch at “21” and he’ll suggest another restaurant because “the food is good but the demos skew old.” That’s media-speak, too.

Obviously, it isn’t just a question of language. There are more important issues to consider:

* When you buy a renowned institution like the Tiffany network, you have to be prepared to deal with topics above and beyond downsizing and cost-cutting. Reportedly, you’ve advised your bankers that you expect to increase cash flow at the network by between $200 million and $300 million over the next two years just by chopping expenses. Well, maybe so, but your predecessor, Larry Tisch, has been cutting costs for nine years and there may not be that much “fat” left to slice away. Besides, downsizing is ’80s talk, Michael. It’s a threat, not a vision. How about some pronouncements about the future of broadcasting?

* Have you thought much about what you’ve acquired, Michael? At your press conference, you kept muttering about the number of television and radio stations you’ll control. That’s all fine and good, but a network is more than just a collection of stations. Moreover, have you ever tried listening to one of your all-news Group W stations? Give me 22 minutes and I’ll give you a snooze.

* There’s something called management that you apparently neglected to think about in putting together your acquisition. A man named Leslie Moonves recently became president of CBS Entertainment. He may look like an actor in a Grecian Formula commercial, but he’s a smart guy. There’s also Lund, the network president. And there’s your own Group W chief, Bill Korn, who apparently was huddled in the 11th row at your press conference. Who’s going to run your show, Michael?

* Why did you seem to be distancing yourself from the CBS image last week? Eisner staged his press conference at an ABC studio, but you chose a hotel. Eisner mingled with his troops, with whom he’d previously worked for 10 years, and he even gave Robert Iger a new five-year contract. You could have dropped by CBS News, Michael, and uttered a few words about its honored heritage. Edward R. Murrow was a pretty good working newsman, even though he never toiled at Group W.

* Since you were dropping hints last week that you planned to be a “hands-on” manager, what are your thoughts about programming? Surely you’re aware that CBS people, a clubby lot, are already dropping snide remarks about some of Group W’s recent programming efforts, like “Jones & Jury” and “Marilu.”

You’re in the big leagues now, Michael – you have deals with people like Steven Bochco. What are you going to do when he tells you his next pilot is about singing postal workers who become serial killers between deliveries? How are you going to reply to David Letterman, who already is saying every night that your No. I priority at CBS will be to bring back “Hee Haw”?

I realize you spent 10 years at McKinsey & Co. as a management consultant, and you may know how to talk to your fellow “suits,” but it’s star time now, Michael. You’re dealing with people who neither need you nor like you – sort of like dealing with the other Michael Jordan.

That’s why you should consider option No. 2 – returning to Pittsburgh. It ‘s not too late to make a graceful exit.

If you decide to stay, on the other hand, do yourself a favor. Get your act together. It ‘s tough out there, and you’re only making it tougher.

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