IN ADDRESSING THE BIG PICTURE conference about the changing face of the media business a couple of years ago, Ted Turner veered off into a surprise 10-minute dissertation on the circumstances of his possible assassination. Having given it some thought, Turner said, he’d decided that the likeliest spot would be a McDonald’s while he was secretly scarfing down a bacon cheeseburger.
His audience seemed unnerved by this deviation from his text, but, asked about it later, the unpredictable mogul scoffed that “there’s nothing wrong with waking a few people up.” It was something he’d been thinking about, so why not say it?
I cite this incident because, while I don’t share Turner’s dark fantasies, I appreciate his impatience with the scripted predictability of business conferences. Thanks to my 10-year stint in helping organize the annual Variety/Schroders Big Picture conference, I’ve had ample opportunity to observe the manners and mores of these meetings, so I can testify that surprises are few and far between.
One year at the conference, Arnold Schwarzenegger surprised the audience with a rather erudite analysis of foreign markets. He was warmly applauded. Another year, Edgar Bronfman Jr. also pulled a surprise by proposing a novel two-tier system for movie ticket pricing. He was widely criticized.
That’s why even the most seasoned executives stay close to the script at meetings of this sort. After all, it’s no secret why businessmen attend these conferences. The CEOs’ mission is to pitch their companies. They, in turn, are usually introduced by investment bankers who are there to pitch their services. Between sessions, everyone is furiously networking even as stalwart headhunters prowl the periphery, eyeing potential fallout.
THE BASIC DILEMMA FACED BY conferences these days, however, is that most speakers, irrespective of their status, are upstaged by the buoyant young stars of the Internet — this was particularly true at last week’s Big Picture. Even as tech stocks were gyrating wildly, the young chiefs of the Amazons, DoubleClicks and Pricelines calmly expounded on their future as though their world was calm and orderly.
After all, the key conflicts of the broadcast business have already been carefully elucidated, and there’s little new to add. The struggles of the movie business to expand profit margins also are familiar to industry audiences, even though the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bob Shaye, Alex Yemenidjian, Arnon Milchan and Jeffrey Berg added considerable wit and color to that discussion.
But it was the dweebs who had the boldest cards to play at the Big Picture, projecting a brave new world of cosmic deals and mind-bending technologies.
Hence, while most of us know all we want to know about cable vs. network, only the young deities of dot-com heaven can argue forcefully about whether the TV set will be the equivalent of an 8-track in the future or will it be the personal computer?
Their road show was embellished, to be sure, by a smoothly informed moderator, Tom Brokaw, who clearly was on intimate terms not only with his subject matter but also with his panelists. Indeed, he knew their responses by heart. The likes of Jeffrey Bezos of Amazon.com, George Bell of Excite and Jay Walker of Priceline.com were fully prepared to take on Brokaw’s challenges. They didn’t have to pitch their businesses; everyone in the room was already a believer, despite the e-carnage taking place in the market. The tech sector of the market has entered its Darwinian phase, the panelists agreed, prompting some in their audience to scurry for their cell phones.
Some skeptics from the “old media” observed pointedly that the Internet panelists seemed most informed when talking, not about entertainment, but about the simple task of moving goods and services. As long as the consumer was out there, placing orders for books or travel accommodations, the future took on the illusion of order. When entertainment became the prime variable, not e-commerce, the aura of self-assurance seemed to crinkle.
It remained for that most nervous-making of all interlopers, a regulator, to sum things up. William Kennard, chairman of the FCC, reminded his audience that while “everybody is nervous and paranoid,” they would do well to summon up one of Albert Einstein’s few homilies. “In uncertainty lies opportunity,” Einstein once declared, and he apparently knew what he was talking about.