Is market mogul left holding the bag?

Memo to: Ron Burkle

From: Peter Bart

You may know a lot about supermarkets, Ron, but when it comes to dealing with the press you’re still a bag boy. As evidence, consider the upshot of your battle with The New York Post’s Page Six.

Initially, you conceived of a shrewd scheme to entrap a Page Six contributor, Jared Paul Stern, taping him as he was hitting on you for “protection money.” But your problems really started after that fateful tape session.

What you should have done was to take the tape to Rupert Murdoch and offer a straightforward deal: You’d turn over the evidence to him and remain silent about the incident, provided Murdoch guarantee that your name would never reappear in the gossip pages. The ethics-in-media types would wince at such a suggestion, but Murdoch is a dealmaker, Ron. He would understand a proposal like that.

Instead you set off a media storm by disclosing to the press the specifics of your caper. In so doing, you made the rival Daily News very happy, but you also made a cardinal error. You started a war with the press. Public figures don’t declare war on the press, Ron. The press will always win.

Witness the following: You are now being singled out for even more punishment on Page Six. Given your media superstar status, The New York Times rewarded you with a snarky (and murky) story about your relationship with Bill Clinton. Everyone wants a Ron Burkle story now, which is the opposite of what you want.

I trust you’ve learned a lesson from all of this: Life is like a supermarket, Ron. In the end, everyone ends up facing that lady at the register. And your tab is going to be steep.

************

Subhed: Fox’s hard knocks

In this context, one of the myths of moguldom is that smart guys never make dumb mistakes. At the risk of sounding morbid, I’ve always found mistakes to be a lot more interesting than successes. You can even learn from them.

I was reminded the other day that it was precisely 20 years ago that Barry Diller, the media guru and perfectionist, launched a venture that was truly a classic mistake. Nurturing his new Fox Network, Diller decided to take down Johnny Carson (do you already smell fiasco?) by starting his own latenight show.

Who did he anoint for this task? Joan Rivers, that’s who. I wouldn’t say that the venture was ill-fated, but even before the new show’s premiere Diller and Rivers already were threatening to sue each other.

There was a lot riding on the show. It was going to be the “cornerstone” of the new network. Diller and Rupert Murdoch faithfully attended all the run-throughs. Diller supervised the design of the set — even the pattern for Rivers’ sofa. To ensure that Rivers wouldn’t go too “blue,” he also appointed a silver-haired matron as her unofficial on-set “censor.”

Rivers, too, had a major incentive to create a hit. Having served as Carson’s “permanent guest host” for three years, she was leery about becoming his arch-rival. To ensure that her show would get off to a good start, she heaped Rivers-like incentives on her staff: Her secretary got a free nose job and her male assistant a facelift. Even her housekeeper got chubby lips.

But the atmosphere deteriorated quickly. Diller did not get along with the show’s producer, who happened to be Rivers’ husband, Edgar. There was a battle over the announcer — Joan and Edgar wanted an edgy black announcer, while the network wanted a preppy type. Lining up the guests became a nightmare: Many stars felt that a guest shot on the Rivers show would preclude their chances of ever returning to Carson. According to Rivers, Diller had promised to “deliver” some of his celeb friends, but none materialized. Comics like Garry Shandling ran like hell from the invitation. It was even hard to land Boy George.

Then things turned even uglier. Carson felt blindsided when he saw a report announcing Rivers’ new show. She called him at home the next morning, apologetically, but Carson hung up on her. They never spoke again.

Diller tried to smooth things over (an unusual role for him). This was not just about an individual show; the future of his new network was at stake. Diller was keenly aware that other so-called fourth networks had come and gone — think Dumont and Metromedia.

Murdoch already had sunk $2 billion into the acquisition of the six Metromedia stations that were to be the basis for the new adventure.

But Diller soon realized it was a losing battle. Within a year Rivers was gone. Other hosts were tried, but none succeeded.

Diller and company were at once angry and discouraged. To be sure, what no one could know at the time was that “American Idol” would some day come along — it would only be a 20-year wait.

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