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In contrast to the theatrics and bluster of other studio execs, Murphy possesses an ordinary-guy demeanor. That may explain his anonymity in the industry, on Wall Street, and even among his own studio’s rank-and-file. “I get things done in a pretty low-key way,” he admits. “I measure my own success by getting a good deal done for the company. I often take aggressive positions, but that’s part of doing good deals.”
You could easily picture Murphy as an investment banker or venture capitalist. Born in Boston and raised in Huntington, Long Island, Murphy went to Dartmouth College, where he studied economics and government. He went to Wharton to specialize in strategic planning, even though his mother was disappointed: “She considered it a vocational school.”
A summer internship at the Washington Post Co. convinced him that media firms were “an incredibly exciting place to work.” He also met his future wife, Ann, then a staffer for Massachusetts Rep. Gerry Studds, before heading west.
At the time, Eisner and his then-chief strategist, Larry Murphy (no relationship), were injecting novel notions like branding into Disney’s culture, marketing Mickey and Minnie like Procter & Gamble products.
Murphy signed on with the Walt Disney Co. and found himself working with an elite corps that included Meg Whitman, who would leave to start eBay; Richard Nanula, who is now CFO at Amgen; and Toby Lenk, the online chief for the Gap.
The younger Murphy began to make his mark by formulating ways to expand Disney Channel around the globe. He helped form a business plan that projected a burgeoning indie film market to justify Disney’s acquisition of Miramax. But nothing quite changed his career as when Disney acquired ABC in 1995.
At the time, federal ownership rules had just been lifted, and Eisner wanted to acquire a network. When NBC became available, Eisner balked at the high price. But in spring 1995, new CFO Bollenbach convinced Eisner that Disney really could afford to buy a network if it assumed some debt. Murphy helped devise a strategy and Eisner was ready to move. Disney went on to buy Cap Cities/ABC for $19 billion, at triple the price of NBC.
After that, Murphy was promoted to CFO of the network. He was charged with helping Disney digest its acquisition, and felt pressure to slash costs.
Disney’s strat planners saw ABC as another way for the corporation to exploit its brand. Yet, in meetings, the network and creative managers began to collide with Disney’s strategic thinkers.
“A lot of times, we’d be sitting in a meeting, trying to come up with ideas to improve ratings,” says a former network manager. “But someone at the table would inevitably ask, ‘Do we have to run these ideas by the strat planners? If so, let’s just come up with a smaller idea.’ ” The group would then dumb-down their ideas in order to avoid the strategic-planning gauntlet. “They’d tell us our idea would take too long, or it was too soon or too late.”
Other divisions also felt this tension. A designer for the California Adventure theme park in Anaheim recalls being supervised by a strategic planner who said, “Michael has told us that it is time to start harvesting the brand.” That meant building a “cheap amusement park with ordinary iron rides right off the shelf and pasting ‘Disney’ at the gate.” (Attendance at California Adventure has been less than stellar.)
Stories of micromanagement began to filter into the press, and a stream of executives departed, including Bollenbach and exec VP John Cooke. Also among them was Larry Murphy, who resigned in 1998. But not Peter Murphy, who not only stayed but was elevated to his boss’ position for a job well done. It’s a seat he’s held ever since.
To be fair, since Eisner took over the company in 1984, strategic planning has played a big part in transforming Disney from a lackluster studio to a media powerhouse. But after the company became more efficient, strategic planning began to rule the company, say critics. What was once a resource for making wise creative decisions has been carried too far.
“The strat planners are Michael’s eyes and ears,” says a former Disney manager. “He doesn’t trust his executives and frontline people, so Peter and the strat planners go in to make sure they’re right.”
Indeed, to hear Roy Disney and his supporters, this overemphasis on strat planning is its chief problem. Michael McConnell, one of the managing directors of Disney’s Shamrock Holdings, wrote in an online editorial that Disney’s “strategic planning, marketing and finance schemes (dictate) the terms to creatives.”
When Eisner wanted to buy Fox Family Channel in 2001, several directors did not want to include Fox Family’s expensive baseball rights contract, say sources. During negotiations, Murphy tried to untangle the properties. When he couldn’t, Eisner decided to buy the entire company package anyway.
Later, a Disney company director called Murphy and asked, “How much was it?”
Murphy told him $5.2 billion.
“Without baseball? That was supposed to be the deal, Peter.”
“Michael did it anyway,” Murphy answered. “I did my best.”
At the next board meeting, Murphy made a presentation, explaining that with some new creative programming, the channel could achieve 20% annual gains. The board felt reassured and formally approved the $5.2 billion deal.
The deal hasn’t produced 20% annual returns and Murphy admits that ABC Family, as the channel was renamed, “is not doing as well as it might.”
But he strongly supports these deals and Eisner (who did not respond to a request for comment). Murphy says that the Cap Cities/ABC merger has “proven to be a great deal” and reminds people not to forget that it also included powerhouse ESPN. As for ABC Family, he says, “We are little more than two years into it. I’m still optimistic that it was the right acquisition since it gave us access to 81 million homes in the U.S.”
In that sense, the deal has paid off. But ABC Family is still struggling to devise some new creative programming.
And that is where Disney — under Eisner — has fallen off balance. The Pixar deal is ending. The recent release “Hidalgo” posted lackluster results, and there are doubts about other films on this year’s feature slate. The studio had a giant hit last year with the entertaining “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but it is also part of a larger trend of making movies based on decades-old theme park rides.
Some critics clearly long for the days when Uncle Walt was in charge. But like wooden skis and rotary phones, those days are gone. As analyst David Miller of Sanders Morris Harris says, “We’re in a different phase now, when large-cap growth companies have to exploit the underexploited.”
And in that regard, Murphy is a managerial Merlin, part investment banker, part seer, in the increasingly barbarous quest for bigger profits. In an industry dominated by quarterly financial reports, Murphy stands out as one of the architects of such a world. Some believe that Murphy, perhaps more than any other, could “be the one who winds up helping Disney,” says analyst Harold Vogel.
Maybe then the guard at Disney’s gate will recognize his name.