Sun Valley 2019: Content Arms Race, Streaming Wars Take Center Stage After a Turbulent Year

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — The art and commerce of the content business will surely be center stage this year as media moguls gather once again in this mountain resort for Allen & Co.’s annual conference.

From Apple to Disney to AT&T, most of the major players who are on the guest list this week at the tony C-suite conclave are making huge investments in storytelling for a new era of streaming on-demand platforms.

“The arms race for writers and how do you compete in this new changing world — that’s what I want to hear about,” said one longtime conference attendee who expects the streaming wars to dominate conversation this week.

In the 12 months since movers and shakers last convened at Sun Valley Lodge, Disney completed its acquisition of 21st Century Fox, Comcast acquired Sky, AT&T installed new bosses at HBO and Warner Bros., Apple raised the curtain on its video strategy, Netflix scooped up more showrunners and a studio facility in Albuquerque. CBS and Viacom appear to be on the verge of merging, again, while Lionsgate may do an about-face on the diversification strategy it embarked on just three years ago if it can come to terms with CBS on a price for the Starz channel group.

This time last year, the talk of the Sun Valley soiree was all about tactical maneuvers: Disney versus Comcast in the fight for Fox and Sky; Leslie Moonves versus Shari Redstone in the battle for the future of CBS Corp., AT&T versus the Trump administration. This year there will likely be more of focus on execution, as Disney gears up for the Nov. 12 debut of the highly anticipated Disney Plus subscription streaming service while WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal are busy building their platforms for launch next year. And Moonves is no longer in the picture at the Eye, following his hasty ouster over the sexual misconduct allegations that broke just weeks after the close of the 2018 Allen & Co. conference.

Meanwhile, the tech contingent will roll in with a little less swagger this time around. Apple CEO Tim Cook is facing public scrutiny for internal changes at the famously insular company and the lack of hardware hits in recent years. Amazon leader Jeff Bezos is coming off a personal scandal that led him to publicly accuse the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail” through dirt it gathered on  Bezos’s extra-martial affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. And Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have been busy all year fending off calls to breakup the social media giants and grappling with multiple federal investigations into its business practices.

One participant noted that mood of the conference has changed in the past five years or so with more of an emphasis on scheduling meetings in advance rather than the chance encounters and “what if” conversations that sparked mega deals such as Disney’s 1996 acquisition of ABC and the doomed 2001 union of Time Warner and AOL. The conference hosted by the media-focused investment bank seeks to offer the invitation-only crowd a mix of stimulating business, social and civic conversations and recreational opportunities provided by the Sun Valley resort (which include an ice skating rink), not to mention the splendor of the surrounding Sawtooth National Forest and Big Wood River.

Among the real-world changes that conference-goers will undoubtedly notice are the verdant vistas on the drive to Sun Valley along Idaho’s state Highway 75. After an unusually wet spring, the area’s forests and mountains are a visual feast, with an array of green hues offset by reddish-brown earth and color sprays of abundant wildflowers. Only time will tell if Sun Valley’s environmental conditions are ripe for great ideas and bold moves to bloom as well.

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