As media toppers exit, replacements show their chops

The corporate guillotine has been working overtime of late. Splayed along the sidelines are top executives of NBC Universal, Warner Bros., CNN, MTV and Disney, among others.

Some of the casualties are familiar names, like NBC’s Jeff Zucker, and some are not, like Steve Wadsworth, boss of Disney Interactive. Some could boast of formidable achievement, like Warner’s Alan Horn, and some reigned amid a chorus of ongoing criticism, like Jon Klein of CNN.

Ceremonial beheadings at this level always signal further upheavals, both in terms of personnel and policy. The announcements, though, are always couched in corporate euphemisms that only trigger a fusillade of counterannouncements.

The newly appointed corporate hierarchs are quick to reassure their troops that no further changes are envisioned, even as they slip lists of doomed underlings to the human resources department. They also arrange to leak to the press the “real” reason why their predecessors had to be fired and how they intend to correct the strategic missteps.

The revisionist histories set forth in times of transition are fascinating to review. The reign of Horn, a man widely respected for his decency and consistency, suddenly is depicted as stodgily ineffective. The Warner Bros. hits were not his ideas. He didn’t “get” “The Hangover” and passed on “Million Dollar Baby.” I guess he was standing around for 11 years while his company made boatloads of money.

It’s easy to denigrate CNN’s Jon Klein for fading ratings and sclerotic hosts, but he worked to sustain objectivity at his network at a moment when others went into ideological meltdown.

The revisionist analyses of Jeff Zucker will doubtless be the most colorful and controversial. At times he seemed like the master puppeteer who had forgotten which strings to pull. It’s hard to remember the case of a fallen CEO who had so few defenders — broadcasting’s answer to Richard Nixon.


Michael Eisner contended in an interview recently that corporate cultures “take on the personality of the groups of people that work in them, not just the present leader.”

I suppose Eisner should be praised for modesty, but not for accuracy — his presence at Disney over 21 years represented the supreme example of how one individual can reshape a corporation.

Indeed, we are presently witnessing the impact of Eisner’s successor, Bob Iger, on Disney — the massive restructuring, the fierce bottom-line discipline, the insistence on making “brands” rather than movies.

There’s widespread speculation as to who will ultimately emerge as the uberboss at the newly reconfigured Comcast empire. One theory holds that Peter Chernin will pull away from his rich Fox deal and move to Comcast. Chernin’s influence has been so valued that he’s said to be paid $100,000 per consult by Comcast.

Whether or not Chernin makes the switch, some believe NBC may become a lot less Universal once the Comcast acquisition is approved. Under one projection, the film studio would be spun off with the theme parks so the Comcasters can sharpen their focus on broadcast and cable.

The post-Chernin era at Fox has been one of wide-spread change. Chernin represented a symbol of civility and stability at Fox, instilling a coherent strategy over Rupert Murdoch’s combative, free-wheeling nation state.

Post Chernin, Murdoch, his head newly shaven, briefly attempted a hands-on management style, then assigned many administrative responsibilities to Chase Carey, who has little interest or experience in the entertainment arena. Murdoch is reportedly focused obsessively on his journalistic wars, keyed to the Wall Street Journal, and also seems intent on imposing the Fox News ideology on his adopted country.

The impact of the uberboss also is apparent at Time Warner. The regime of Jeffrey Bewkes represents a stunning reversal of the policies of the Gerry Levin era. Levin never saw a deal he didn’t like while Bewkes has demonstrated a fierce aversion to megadeals, pushing instead for organic growth.

One rule is clear: Whenever a new uberboss takes over, the guillotine starts falling once again.

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