Conversations” is an accurate title for Michael Eisner’s new CNBC talkshow, scheduled to air six times this year, although “Dances With Moguls” would be just as apt.
What Eisner doesn’t do, as he demonstrated during the fill-in stint on “Charlie Rose” that earned him this periodic perch, is conduct an interview. In that respect, the show is very much a conversation with the former Walt Disney Co. chairman, every bit as much about him as his guests.
The lone exception in the premiere, perhaps because he doesn’t occupy the same mogul space, is Bran Ferren, a technology guru who previously worked for Eisner as exec VP for creative technology and R&D at Walt Disney Imagineering. Ferren talks about an era not that far off in which entertainment will come from computer chips implanted directly into the skin. With his wild beard and sci-fi-sounding concepts, he easily could have his own show, most likely airing on the Discovery Channel.
The other conversations, however, with Martha Stewart and Sony Corp. CEO Howard Stringer, shed relatively little light on their subjects. Perhaps that’s because Eisner is still working through issues surrounding his tenure at Disney, filtering his experience through their prisms.
To Stewart, for example, Eisner suggests their shared reputation as micro-managers is “really a positive thing,” warranting praise. As for Stringer, the host asks why the well-spoken Welshman received favorable press coverage despite rampant layoffs at Sony, whereas Eisner, in his own words, “did much less and got much worse publicity than you did.”
Then again, CNBC is using Eisner to draw attention to the business-news channel, so it seems only fair that Eisner use the network right back, seeking to buff his image after the bruising it endured toward the end of his 20-year reign at Disney. It’s just that as a TV program, Eisner’s approach to talk is the difference between a journalist — whose goal is to elicit information from others — and an exec moonlighting in a strange medium that he clearly feels kicked him around.
Of course, Eisner did have time to polish his on-camera skills back when he hosted “The Wonderful World of Disney,” and he does come across as candid. His most notable admission happens during a tease for the next episode, when he concedes to Regis Philbin that by playing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on ABC four times a week, “We killed the golden goose.”
“Conversations” won’t yield much gold for CNBC, but the mere fact that critics are being reminded the channel is still on represents a win. As for Eisner, after his storied run at Disney he certainly doesn’t damage his public persona through this venture, but the temptation would be to tell him not to quit contemplating his next day job, whatever that turns out to be.