Mad Dow disease afflicting

NO DRUG HAS EVER been invented that can match the hubris of a soaring stock market. Witness the euphoria on display at last week’s Big Picture conference in New York, co-sponsored by Variety and Schroders, where one entertainment industry leader after another was swept up in a wave of self-congratulation. The era of the “bum rap” is over, proclaimed Viacom’s feisty Sumner Redstone in touting the bright prospects of global showbiz.

It wasn’t that long ago that the corporate titans were frazzled by declining ratings, soaring production costs and, most of all, lagging share prices — that is, until Wall Street magically transformed them into exuberant optimists.

The impact of the nonstop bull market has permeated not only showbiz, but every aspect of the New York zeitgeist. Make no mistake about it — the late ’90s belong to the Masters of the Universe, Part II. The Vanities are all on vivid display, as though inviting the Bonfire.

New York’s hot restaurants are booked weeks in advance. Broadway is scalpers’ heaven. The packed hotels are sealed off behind wall-to-wall limos. Pricey goods are whipped off the shelves of Madison Avenue boutiques as though they were Costcos. Newspapers herald reports of the latest record Wall Street bonuses, as the newest generation of banking bonzos bid up apartment prices to surreal heights. Elite private schools have longer waiting lists than Harvard.

OVER AFTER-DINNER cognac and cigars, of course, the cool-headed veterans speculate about sudden surprises that might puncture the euphoria. Will it be an Asian debacle? An Arab sell-off? A Europanic? A techie retrenchment? An over-muscular dollar?

Wrong, say Wall Street’s young Masters. The bubble will never burst. There’s simply too much money chasing too few outlets. The pension funds are too fat, the mutual funds too affluent.

The old pros nod sagely. They’ve heard all that before.

And meanwhile the beat goes on and the entertainment industry is a major beneficiary. Companies whose shares seemedmired in the basement suddenly find them basking in the penthouse.

And with good reason, Redstone argues. “If consolidation was the watchword of the mid-’90s, focus has become the new call to action,” he intones. The focus will be on improving earnings, controlling costs and mitigating risk through partnerships.

CBS’ MEL KARMAZIN, still the new boy in town, discounted reports that CBS is trying to figure out how to lay off its unprofitable network. “We’re looking to buy, not sell,” he insisted.

Even press-shy Edgar Bronfman Jr. stepped forward to herald Universal’s prospects, arguing that investors still sharply undervalue his company despite a demonstrable 20% annual earnings growth through the year 2000.

Both Bronfman and Disney’s Michael Eisner (speaking via videotape) predicted dramatic results from their fiercely competitive Orlando theme parks, not to mention those overseas. Universal is doubling the size of its Orlando facility and adding hotel rooms, while Disney shortly will unveil its new billion-dollar Animal Kingdom.

Lost amid these rosy assessments was the usual litany of complaints about star salaries, “Seinfeld” reruns, “ER” renewals and the high cost of football. Everyone on every panel could quote the grosses of “Titanic”; the overages have already been forgotten.

And while there were occasional acrimonious disagreements at previous Big Picture conferences, this year’s speakers seemed caught up in the New Civility.

“These companies hate each other,” noted one investment banker in the audience who had been in attendance in prior years. “They sue each other. They spread nasty rumors. But it’s amazing what a 9000 Dow can do to calm everyone down.”

Having said that, he shrugged: “I don’t know what I’m bitching about. My limo is waiting outside, too.”

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