Save for the slight intensity of their conversation, Jonathan Nelson and Peter Chernin could have easily passed for two dads relaxing on vacation. Both men were among the media and technology moguls attending a week of presentations, BBQs and hiking as part of Allen & Co.’s annual conference. For some, business as usual meant no business at all. For others, sideline discussions were far from idle chatter.
Backed by money from Nelson’s Providence Equity Partners, Chernin was in the midst of an aggressive play for Hulu when he landed in Idaho. According to an associate, he thought he was close to a deal. By Friday, he would find out that was not the case.
After a week of listening to talks about the value of streaming sites and pay TV platforms like Netflix, Hulu’s owners — Comcast, Disney and 21st Century Fox — decided to take the online video service off the market.
But for most attendees, Allen & Co.’s latest confab was less dramatic. Even though Google’s Eric Schmidt thought there appeared to be more tech companies in attendance this year, those firms have long been represented amid a power shift between traditional and new media. Facebook leader Mark Zuckerberg was a repeat guest as were Google’s Eric Schmidt and Apple’s Tim Cook. Pinterest chief executive Ben Silbermann was a first-timer. Past belles of the ball have included YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, who spoke on the conference’s annual New Breed panel just three months before Google acquired his company in 2006.
While the seeds of the Hulu may have been planted long before last week’s mogul fest, the final outcome was decided in Sun Valley, a place where newsmakers try their hardest to avoid making any news. Participants are barred from speaking to the press, which is quarantined to smaller and smaller sections of the property each year (Former Disney chief Michael Eisner said I should report on the fact that the local ice cream store had no non-fat ice cream). Reporters — and locals — can’t enter the Lodge’s Duchin bar after 5 p.m. and are repeatedly warned against approaching the likes of Cook and Bill Gates in the lobby. Security immediately whisked away one reporter who introduced himself to Warren Buffett, saying that “Mr. Buffett” had business to attend to. Another guard escorted two local women in their mid-80’s out of the bar.
The Lodge, which is home to such guests as Time Warner’s Jeff Bewkes, sports magnate Robert Kraft and News Corp.’s Chase Carey, made one exception to its no-photos press rule: Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto posed for a few moments before heading upstairs. Nieto stopped to shake hands with the Lodge’s gardeners and met with local Mexicans during his visit.
Chatter around Liberty Media’s interest in Time Warner Cable steered much of the week’s conversation toward the cable landscape. On Wednesday night, Liberty’s John Malone flew by reporters eager to ask him about the potential deal, only to answer questions the following morning a little after 6 a.m. on his way to breakfast. Besides Hulu, Malone’s calls for broader consolidation in the cable industry may have been the week’s biggest news.