IN MUCH THE WAY that we track the progress of high school classmates, there’s a natural tendency to monitor those who came of age professionally at the same time, which usually means alternately rooting for and against them.
Perhaps that’s why I’m focusing lately on the exec class of ’89 — the year I took over the network TV beat during my initial stint at Variety. Specifically, I’m referring to Peter Chernin, Robert Iger and Leslie Moonves, who happen to have been named president, in sequence, of Fox Entertainment, ABC Entertainment and Lorimar Television that year.
Oddly enough, Moonves is the only one to have subsequently ventured off campus, currently serving as co-chief operating officer at Viacom. Chernin survived working for Barry Diller, then climbed to become the No. 2 exec at News Corp., which is as high as that ladder extends to anyone who isn’t named Murdoch. For his part, Iger ascended at ABC, then weathered the Disney acquisition and Ovitz interlude to eventually be named the studio’s president.
These execs have reached the precipice of actually running huge conglomerates, but it’s apparent that bigger headaches come with those bigger jobs. For now, the Advil popping starts with Iger’s campaign to succeed Michael Eisner, complete with his own version of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (Disney Alumni for Book Sales?) attempting to torpedo his candidacy.
Indeed, industry consolidation and the expansion of these companies have made clearing that last hurdle quite a leap. There are disgruntled stockholders to be kept mollified, increasingly vigilant boards to woo and a press corps that has developed a relatively new infatuation with internecine warfare among corporate suits.
Perhaps for that reason, Chernin spends a lot of time these days talking about digital piracy, which is a sure-fire way to transform an otherwise charming fellow into the death of the party. He’s also blessed to have his name mentioned in connection with every top-level job opening, which might explain why he had the cojones to publicly endorse John Kerry’s presidential bid when his boss backed the other guy.
ALL THREE ARE thisclose to the big brass ring, which is a far cry from some of their claims to fame when I first encountered them. Iger made his early mark at ABC by launching “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (omigod, it’s still on), Fox tuned in “In Living Color,” and Lorimar supplied ABC’s entire “TGIF” comedy block, demonstrating a commitment to “family” values by producing three sitcoms with that word in the title.
Thinking back, my first impression of each was that they were smart, tough and savvy, adept in managing up as well as down. It’s an appraisal that hasn’t always applied, frankly, watching some of the messes their companies have stumbled into over the years, which — along with their contemporaries who fell by the wayside, for one reason or another, during the race — says something about the vagaries of the entertainment industry. For starters, to borrow from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” don’t haggle about rules in a knife fight.
INEVITABLY, REPORTING and commenting on these executives’ accomplishments and setbacks have yielded some friction, though experience dictates that the bruising seldom leaves a permanent mark. Moreover, contrary to a recent farewell opus by the New York Times’ outgoing Hollywood correspondent, I don’t know many journalists naive enough to be personally wounded if our calls don’t get returned once we’re no longer in a position to write about them.
That’s because in any of these jobs, you’re only as important as the chair you occupy. In that respect, this window represents a rather singular moment in Hollywood’s version of “Survivor,” before we discover which castaways land on the throne or potentially get the chair pulled out from under them — seats that seemingly grow more slippery, and chillier, as the elevation rises.
Then again, maybe that’s just the way it appears to someone who claimed a front-row seat on the sidelines back in ’89, before Lorimar was swallowed by what is now Time Warner, Fox controlled DirecTV or Disney owned ABC. Like Chernin, Iger and Moonves, I was so much younger then, I’m older than that now.