CEOs eye Big Picture through rose-colored specs

NEW YORK — LISTENING TO the distinguished speakers addressing the sixth annual Big Picture conference here last week, I found myself pondering some essentially irrelevant questions. The conference, a joint venture of Variety and Schroder Wertheim, again paraded out an impressive array of CEOs and gurus, ranging from Rupert Murdoch to Westinghouse’s Michael Jordan.

But even as I digested their collective epiphanies, I could not resist asking myself the following:

Why does every CEO who speaks at every conference feel impelled to be so damned optimistic about the fortunes of his company? Somewhere out there, there must be one “suit” willing to confess, “Things look dicey this year.”

Moreover, why does every corporate chieftain seem so exultant about technology? Some day, I’d love to hear one CEO fess up that he’s scared to death about what his techies are doing to him.

Whenever the techies themselves make presentations, after all, they go out of their way to say something discomfiting to us non-dweebs.

Last week, for example, Pixar’s Lawrence Levy ended his company’s impressive presentation by warning that his digital models were only in their “infancy.” Why can’t any new process be described as “mature” so that normal mortals can assess its cost as well as its potential?

ANOTHER QUESTION: WHY DOES every corporate boss feel he must pay homage to the twin gods of “content” and “creativity” at conferences like the Big Picture, even when the CEOs in question are well-known to be numbers crunchers? At last week’s event, Charles Dolan, president of Cablevision Systems, at least admitted that his company was obsessive about hardware, adding, “We’ll be back to content by the end of the decade.” The subtext was that cablers still had some time to kill before they had to worry about what actually went out on their systems — a refreshingly honest comment.

At media conferences like the Big Picture, network chiefs always tell us how bonded they are with their affiliates and station groups. They even present themselves as ardent supporters of news, even though, as Jordan of Westinghouse and CBS acknowledged, the economics of starting yet another all-news cable network seem utterly confounding.

WHILE CONFERENCE SPEAKERS touched on a wide range of issues, there also were areas they studiously circumnavigated. I never heard CEOs talking much about executive compensation, for example, nor mention the ever-ubiquitous golden parachutes.

CEOs don’t dwell on downsizing anymore, either. And when they enthuse about expanding markets, they always seem to be referring to overseas markets — isn’t it chic anymore to refer to domestic growth?

Similarly, movie studio chieftains rarely, if ever, hold forth at industry conferences about their $100 million projects. Instead, they like to boast about niche pictures and other low-cost product. During last week’s movie panel, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax heard so many rivals talking about their plans to make “Miramax-like” movies that he finally reminded the audience that Miramax, too, intended to continue making Miramax-like movies — and might do it even better.

NONE OF THIS is to suggest there weren’t good speeches made at the Big Picture last week, or that a few candid comments were not delivered. The basic problem is that most corporate bosses are very self-protective. They also like to “sell.”

Hence, it is sometimes tempting to break in and urge, “OK, we know things are going great, but tell us about your biggest problems. What’s got you worried?”

At last year’s Big Picture conference, for example, the irrepressible Ted Turner suddenly veered away from his prepared remarks to remind his audience that he was among the youngest of the CEOs, that he was also in great physical shape thanks to the efforts of his wife, Jane Fonda, and that he intended to outlive and out-earn all of his competitors.

At the same time, Turner continued, he still had the nagging fear that some would-be assassin was lurking out there somewhere, eager to do him in. One night he might even sneak out for a burger at McDonald’s and it might happen there — in a flash his life would be over.

Having confided his foreboding, Turner then nimbly returned to his prepared remarks. The assassination scenario was totally irrelevant, but at least it shed some light on the speaker and lent his presentation some humanity.

Candor and humanity — two items that are not usually on the agenda at conferences like the Big Picture. Perhaps next year …

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