When Disney Co. president Michael Ovitz first joined the studio a little over a year ago, he took an active role at ABC that rapidly diminished on the heels of complaints from top web execs to Disney chairman Michael Eisner.
Debates still rage between the ABC camp and Ovitz loyalists as to just how involved Ovitz was in the web’s high-profile hire of Geraldine Laybourne as president of Disney/ABC Cable Networks and how his role in landing Jamie Tarses as ABC Entertainment president upset ABC brass.
One thing is for sure: the former super-agent made his presence known enough to have CapCities/ABC president Robert Iger voice concerns about interference to Eisner. Before Ovitz’s arrival, no one stood between Iger and Eisner.
There is speculation that Ovitz played a key role in the demise of ABC’s partnership with Brillstein-Grey Entertainment. The two had an alliance that went awry in the spring around the same time that B-G sold a 50% stake in its TV and film operations to MCA, whose president, Ron Meyer, was partnered with Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency. Ovitz had tried to lure B-G’s Brad Grey to a senior post at the studio and network, but ended up somewhat alienating him instead — although sources say their differences have since been patched up.
As for Laybourne, both sides take credit for hiring the former Nickelodeon topper and MTV Networks vice chair. Sources close to Iger say he initially approached Laybourne over three years ago to take the entertainment president’s post at the network. She declined and the post went to Ted Harbert. After the merger with Disney, sources close to Iger said he again went after Laybourne, and this time was successful in luring her to oversee the merged entity’s cable interests.
It is a similar story with Tarses, but a different ending. ABC execs had approached Tarses about joining the network after Stu Bloomberg left as development chief to take a post in New York. Tarses was under contract to NBC as senior VP of primetime series. Iger had mentioned the web’s interest in Tarses to Ovitz, and, according to execs familiar with the situation, the latter intervened, opening the door to negotiations with her. However, the situation grew complicated when ABC Entertainment president Harbert learned of the negotiations. At the time, it was anticipated that Harbert would exit. It was ultimately decided Harbert should stay on as chairman.
The Tarses situation was an ugly blot on ABC this past year. NBC West Coast president Don Ohlmeyer labeled Ovitz the Antichrist for his involvement in luring Tarses to ABC. It was a tawdry story, complete with rumored accusations of sexual harassment of Tarses against Ohlmeyer. Ovitz took the blame in the media — unjustly sources close to him say — for spreading those rumors.
Many say it was the work of Tarses in her efforts to free herself of NBC, a charge she has denied. Since then, Ovitz has had few dealings with Tarses, and Ohlmeyer earlier this month checked into the Betty Ford Clinic.
Internally, Tarses’ arrival was a problem for the well-regarded senior VP of entertainment Michael Rosenfeld, a former top agent at CAA. It was a tough situation all around: Ovitz played a role in luring both to ABC, yet Tarses’ arrival led to Rosenfeld’s departure after he found himself without a clear role. Rosenfeld landed on his feet, taking a senior VP post at Brillstein-Grey.
Iger, sources said, became irritated early on when Ovitz looked to do deals for the network on his own. While such behavior is commonplace at talent agencies, it ruffled the feathers of ABC brass.
“Ovitz had a brash style,” one observer said. “He did not follow the rules and called ABC execs around Iger, which drove Bob crazy.” Ovitz, sources said, met with Tarses before Iger, which upset the CapCities/ABC president.
Eventually, sources close to Ovitz say, he realized “this corporate giant had its own culture and he could not reverse their styles.” Iger, one industry exec said, clearly was not comfortable with Ovitz and was part of a conscious effort to squeeze out Ovitz and those linked to him.
One division where Ovitz is said to have kept his involvement to a minium is Walt Disney Television. While he did play a part in bringing in David A. Neuman as division prexy in January; he kept a low profile after that.
Although Iger may be pleased with Ovitz’s exit, many TV industry execs anticipate tough relations ahead with Eisner. The Disney topper was very involved in the network’s schedule-making process this past spring and will likely take an even greater role next year.
“The story is not over,” says one exec who deals with all of the principals involved.