Ah, the first day of summer camp for billionaires.
It’s that time of year when media barons break out the bike shorts and descend en masse on Sun Valley, Idaho for investment firm Allen & Co.’s exclusive conference.
The gathering of the one percent has developed a reputation over the years for being a hotbed of dealmaking — Comcast’s acquisition of NBCUniversal and Time Warner’s disastrous marriage to AOL were just a few of the pacts cooked up at the ski resort.
As he arrived Tuesday, Providence Equity Partners head Jonathan M. Nelson summed up the appeal of the conference in haiku fashion, “Learning. Friends. Some business.”
It’s not just the prospect of a merger or purchase that brings the bigwigs out in force. Over the better part of a week, guests such as Disney chief Bob Iger, Sony Corp. CEO Kaz Hirai, Comcast Corp. chairman Brian Roberts, and Time Warner head Jeff Bewkes will listen to presentations on national security and the global economy. The schedule for the conference, like its guest list, is kept firmly under wraps, but insiders say that the highlight of Wednesday’s events will be a discussion between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former N.J. senator Bill Bradley. Later in the week, guests will be treated to a talk on the fight against terrorism from former CIA director George Tenet, and Charlie Rose will interview Mauricio Macri, the president of Argentina. Those presentations and panels unfold behind closed doors.
This edition is also being closely monitored because it presents a rare opportunity to see Viacom combatants Shari Redstone and Philippe Dauman in proximity — outside of a courtroom, at least.
Alas, shutterbugs huddled outside of the Sun Valley inn to document guests’ arrival were foiled in their attempts to get a Shari and Philippe two-fer. They did, however, see Shari Redstone get into a car captained by CBS Corp. chairman Les Moonves, as the television executive drove them both to dinner. CBS, like Viacom, is controlled by National Amusements, the theater company started by Redstone’s father, Sumner Redstone. The senior Redstone’s ailing health has triggered a pitched legal battle for control of the media empire he amassed. Shari Redstone is pushing for Dauman’s ouster, but supports Moonves.
Beyond the fight for Viacom’s future, Great Britain’s exit from the European Union and media consolidation are expected to dominate discussions at this year’s conference. Guests were divided about the longterm economic impact of “Brexit” and its impact on their businesses.
Home Depot co-founder Kenneth Langone was sanguine, saying, “markets go up and they go down.” Moonves noted that, “We’re not as big internationally as some of media competitors. It hasn’t affected us at all.” But others, such as Nelson and CAA co-founder Mike Ovitz, seemed more alarmed by its potential to trigger economic instability.
Most moguls waved off press, but the handful that stopped by to talk about their plans for the week argued that Comcast’s recent deal to buy DreamWorks Animation and Lionsgate’s pact to join with Starz could trigger a new wave of mergers and acquisitions.
“There’s a lot of consolidation coming,” said Ovitz. “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
He predicted that there could be a “North/South” union, seeming to imply that a Silicon Valley player could one day gobble up a Hollywood company.
Sun Valley prides itself on bringing together members of the old and new media. That’s awkward, in a way, because the distribution models that prop up legacy companies — theatrical exhibition, home entertainment, and cable — are being upended by digital players like Netflix and Amazon. Where some see threat, others see opportunity. The way people access shows and movies may be changing, but not their desire to be entertained, argued Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
“People are consuming more content now in a meaningful way than they ever have,” said Zaslav. “They’re just consuming it on more platforms…It’s just a question of making sure that your content is on all those platforms.”
James Rainey contributed to this report.