Dear old dad didn’t dispense many pearls of wisdom, but one about gambling has resonated through the years. “Don’t just cap what you’ll lose,” he said. “Set a limit on what you’ll win.”
The underlying logic was clear: While it’s easy to get carried away during a winning streak, stay at the table too long and the odds will inevitably turn and catch up with you.
This fact of media life came to mind watching an excellent “American Masters” documentary, “Johnny Carson: King of Late Night,” in the context of Rupert Murdoch — who appears to have hung on too long to enjoy a graceful exit — and other CEOs who are more judiciously planning ahead.
Carson famously walked away from “The Tonight Show” two decades ago and never looked back. While not exactly a recluse, he eschewed performing afterward, which longtime producer Peter Lassally once described, rightfully, as “an elegant end to his career,” noting his old boss was “not dependent on the love and approval of an audience to feel complete.”
In that respect, both Carson and CBS anchor Walter Cronkite enhanced their legends by maintaining relatively low profiles (Cronkite’s was markedly higher) in their senior years.
Nostalgia has softened the edges a bit, since neither Carson nor Cronkite completely escaped succession drama. Both were nudged toward retirement in part through the machinations of an understudy (Jay Leno and Dan Rather, respectively) with an aggressive agent/manager, prodding the network to hasten the baton pass.
Nevertheless, each managed to leave while still on top and did little or nothing to risk diminishing his prestige after a historic run.
Murdoch, by contrast, has lingered at News Corp. because he clearly loves the place but also awaiting the arbitrary day when one of his heirs is deemed ready and could be handed the keys to the kingdom. Those plans have suffered a setback amid continuing fallout from the phone-hacking scandal, likely to cast an additional shadow over the mogul’s already sure-to-be-controversial legacy.
Given the sway Murdoch has exerted over politicians — as much to advance corporate interests as ideology — it must smart to be labeled “not a fit person” to oversee his company by a British Parliamentary committee. Even allowing for elements of payback, such a verdict coupled with the turmoil over the hacking and its aftermath suggest we haven’t hung out the last of News Corp.’s dirty laundry.
At a minimum, as New York Times columnist David Carr observed, “The Rupert Murdoch that we have known — untouchable and evasive — has become a man falling down stairs, slowly but surely.” The scandal has also provided critics license to tee off on News Corp., and Murdoch hasn’t particularly helped his cause by lately taking to Twitter to lament its incivility, indicating an unfamiliarity with the acidly bitter comments sections of most media sites.
Meanwhile, two other CEOs, CBS’ Leslie Moonves and Disney’s Robert Iger, have quietly taken steps to engineer softer landings. The former added a production deal to his latest contract extension — similar to that afforded former News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin — which will allow him to segue into producing if he chooses, while Iger announced he’ll remain the studio’s chairman after ceding his CEO title in 2015.
As the PBS documentary notes, Carson was influenced by seeing comedy titans like George Burns and his idol Jack Benny perform until they became shadows of themselves, although it’s not entirely clear even Carson knew he was going to disappear as completely as he did.
Indeed, in his final “Tonight Show” sign-off the host told viewers he hoped they would again graciously welcome him into their homes “when I find something I want to do and think you would like.” He even signed the obligatory development deal with NBC — a seedling that never bore any fruit.
Executives and performers obviously occupy different strata, and in terms of being allowed to age gracefully, the business tends to be more brutal on the latter.
Nevertheless, for those lucky enough to leave any of these endeavors on their own terms, Carson offers a pretty good example of how, and when, to cash in one’s chips.