With Brian Roberts conspiring to win Steve Jobs and Roy Disney to the Comcast cause, Mouse House “cast members” and producers on the lot pondered the impact of the cable king’s march on the Magic Kingdom.
“The mood isn’t exactly jubilant over there,” quipped one film producer with a deal at Disney.
Mouse employees tried their best Thursday to stick to business as usual a day after Comcast’s hostile bid for the Burbank conglom, now valued at roughly $59 billion. Reaction to the developments ran the gamut from “Holy (cow)!” to “Bring it on!”
Most front-office execs were ensconced at Walt Disney World, staging a second day of presentations at an investors conference — and trying valiantly to ignore the frenzy of worldwide speculation rocking their professional world.
Chairman-CEO Michael Eisner chatted about everything on analysts’ minds except the Comcast offer in a question-and-answer session. Parks and resorts prexy Jay Rasulo detailed signs of improved attendance on both coasts, and ABC Entertainment chairman Lloyd Braun discussed plans for improving the Alphabet web’s No. 4 position in key primetime demos.
But back in Burbank, those in the trenches were still trying to shake off shock and awe.
Keep mind on work
“The common reaction Wednesday was ‘Wow!’ but by today, the people in my group were saying, ‘Let’s try to focus on the task at hand,’ ” a Disney division head said.
Top managers were contacted by studio brass, who advised that the takeover battle was a situation best left to the conglom’s board.
But some key execs already were seeing one benefit from the potential regime change in the form of a boosted Disney stock price. Many high-level Mouseketeers hold stock options whose value can be appreciated only if Disney shares regain levels of a few years back.
“Our options have been underwater for a long time, and this could help,” observed one exec.
Studio types eager
Film studio employees are especially sanguine about the prospect of a regime change, coming off a stellar year that will serve as a solid evidence of their value to the company.
“Of course there are people who don’t like change and are afraid of it,” a studio exec mused. “It’s always unnerving when your life changes. But it’s not like your wife has died in a car crash. Some rich guys want to buy the company.”
Meanwhile, Comcast continued behind-the-scenes efforts to enlist the support of Pixar topper Jobs and Roy Disney, the recently ankled Disney vice chairman who’s been campaigning for the past three months to oust Eisner. One well-placed source suggested nothing would more please Comcast chief Roberts — or assist his gutsy takeover attempt — than to stage a press conference in which he marched out Jobs and Disney to voice support for the cable company’s bid.
But much remains to be done. In fact, changes in the company’s stock prices since the offer was announced make it almost certain Comcast will have to sweeten its offer to Mouse shareholders to prevail. Some believe other Disney bidders could enter the fray as well.
“It’s too early to say yes or no,” said Clifford Miller, a spokesman for Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, another disgruntled former Disney director.
“In the meantime, Roy and Stanley are not going to be deterred from their campaign to persuade major shareholders to vote no” on returning Eisner to office for the company year, Miller added.
Roy Disney is known to enjoy a cordial relationship with Comcast cable division prexy Steve Burke, who once worked at the Mouse.
Reaction to the Disney imbroglio in the TV community was as mixed as elsewhere, but some producers and execs said they fear the idea of an even bigger Mouse.
Just too big?
“There’s a danger of these companies getting so much bigger,” said one TV industry insider. “The fuel that drives these companies is creativity, whether it’s ‘American Idol’ or ‘Finding Nemo.’ I wonder how companies of this size — these aircraft carriers — are going to be able to find creative inspiration.”
Producers all over town have stories of projects loved by ABC development execs — or even Alphabet toppers Braun and Susan Lyne– that suddenly morphed into pariahs after Disney prexy Bob Iger or Eisner decided they didn’t like them.
“Given the size of Disney already, I don’t think that a potential Comcast takeover changes that fundamental equation,” “NYPD Blue” exec producer Steven Bochco said. “The only real issue is, does it work on other levels?”
Fans of regime change
Critics of Eisner’s management style believe that creative types — particularly at ABC — might be better off under a Comcast-owned Disney because of the change in management.
“Disney will be a better run company because of Brian Roberts,” said one top network exec. “He’s a decent guy, and he brings character into the mix. People like working for him; they want to win for him.”
While mergers like Comcast/Disney always raise fears of congloms turning increasingly inward, one exec doesn’t think the marriage would further shut out outside suppliers from creating content for the Mouse House’s broadcast and cable outlets.
“We’ve all learned that if you rely only on yourself for all of your product, you’ll fail,” the exec said.
Another insider said it’s “a fallacy” to automatically assume that creativity can’t spring forth from a larger conglom.
More creative pressure
“There’s no question the pressure on creative types inside these companies is greater than ever before,” the insider said. “But that doesn’t mean creativity can’t flourish. It just means there’s pressure for it to flourish more quickly.”
ABC affiliates seem to be adopting a wait-and-see attitude before drawing any conclusions about a possible Comcast/Disney merger. Any skittishness at the thought of a cable company owning Disney’s content empire seem to be mitigated by the fact that Comcast’s Burke is a longtime ABC exec who bolted Disney in 1998.
Burke, son of former CapCities/ABC chief exec Dan Burke, is widely respected in the broadcast biz.
“Steve is as gifted a young executive as I know,” an ABC affiliate exec said. “He has a great feeling for many aspects of the business.”
Network shows undercut?
At first glance, ABC affiliates didn’t seem alarmed by Comcast’s unsolicited bid despite what would seem to be built-in red flags. In promoting the cable side of its business, would Comcast-Disney repurpose network shows, undercutting the stations?
“This is just an opening bid, and you don’t know where it is going to go,” said a broadcaster who owns an ABC affil. “It’s the first act in what I’m sure is a multi-act drama. It is really none of our business as to who the owners of the network are as long as it performs. I hope that the ultimate consequence is to improve ABC’s performance.”
(Cathy Dunkley in Los Angeles and Pam McClintock in New York contributed to this report.)