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Sun Valley: Media Moguls and Tech Titans Mingle at Allen & Co. Conference

The signs are simple, unadorned, set against a white backdrop. “Private function,” they read.

That’s the way Allen & Co., the investment bank that sponsors the closely watched annual media conference at Idaho ski resort Sun Valley, wants to keep it. Exclusive and under the radar.

The behind-closed-doors nature of the yearly confab is what brings in Rupert and Warren and Barry and Mark. Titans of global capitalism so Herculean that their last names seem superfluous.

There they were in force on Wednesday morning. Former Walt Disney Co. chief Michael Eisner brushed past media while wearing a blue baseball cap. Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett pulled up to the gathering in a red Subaru Outback. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg was ready to take on the crisp valley breezes in a long white sweater while investors huddled around her in the courtyard of the Sun Valley lodge.

They came to see NBA legend Phil Jackson interviewed by Basketball Hall of Famer and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, and Google co-founder Larry Page get grilled by technology investor Ben Horowitz.

Despite attempts to keep the discussions under the radar, the armada of private planes and fleets of black SUVs, as well as the prospect of getting a whiff of the major mergers being cooked up in between rounds of golf and presentations, are what keeps the media flocking to the mountainside retreat.

“You’re here for the conference?” is the constant query among local shopkeepers in neighboring Ketchum, but the town carries no banners welcoming the media and technology barons to the tiny hamlet (the scene of novelist Ernest Hemingway’s suicide). Business is booming, they say, though in deference to Herb Allen, the Wall Street giant who put the annual gathering together, few will put their name to that statement. Secrecy rules.

Not that there isn’t news. Discovery Communications CEO David Zaslav told reporters Tuesday that he expects there to be more consolidation in the cable space. Those comments carry weight given that analysts are looking to see whether Discovery will buy Scripps or become an acquisition target itself for Disney.

Its status is secure. Over 30 years, the conference has been responsible for some of the biggest deals in the media landscape, fostering the pacts that brought together Comcast and NBCUniversal and Disney and  Capital Cities/ABC, for instance, as well as the ill-fated marriage between Time Warner and AOL.

Perhaps Diane von Fürstenberg, the fashion design icon on hand with husband Barry Diller, put it best when approached by a fellow conference-goer outside the gathering.

“How are you doing?” she was asked.

“Older,” was the reply.

As is the conference, though no less powerful for it.

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