Me­dia min­der

Los Angeles Times - - Op - Ed - PATT MOR­RI­SON ASKS | MICHAEL EIS­NER patt.mor­ri­ This in­ter­view was edited and ex­cerpted from a longer taped tran­script. An ar­chive of Mor­ri­son’s in­ter­views is on­line at­tasks.

Who’s the leader of the club who car­ried the Walt Dis­ney Co. into the bil­lion-dol­lar black-ink zone with box-of­fice whop­pers? Who ex­tended the Mouse Em­pire into tele­vi­sion net­works and cruise ships and pro hockey and Pixar and Mi­ra­max? M-i-c-h-a-e-l E-i-s-n-e-r. Eis­ner is also the man whose corner-of­fice con­flicts cost Dis­ney dearly, gen­er­at­ing fric­tion with Pixar and, even­tu­ally, Dis­ney’s board, which showed him the door. He walked through it in 2005, af­ter 21 years as Dis­ney’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Me­dia is still his game. He started as an NBC page, on his way to ex­ec­u­tive suites at ABC and later at Para­mount Pic­tures. At Dis­ney, he stepped in front of the cam­eras, tak­ing on the role that Walt had held as host of the com­pany’s sig­na­ture TV show. Life post-Dis­ney put him back into the host chair, this time at a CNBC chat show.

And, be­tween cor­po­rate board meet­ings, he has also taken a chair at the com­puter key­board, most re­cently as the coau­thor of a book, with Aaron Co­hen, “Work­ing To­gether: Why Great Part­ner­ships Suc­ceed.” Its roots are in Eis­ner’s work with his Dis­ney part­ner, the late Frank Wells, and he went look­ing for other busi­ness duets in a world of soloists. First, I want to es­tab­lish that I’ve been try­ing to talk to you for some time, lest any­one think I’m suck­ing up be­cause of the re­cent talk that you might be run­ning The Times’ par­ent com­pany, Tribune.

[ Laughs] It’s as un­likely that you would suck up as it is that I might run Tribune, let’s put it that way.

I have to ask — what about Tribune?

It’s typ­i­cal me­dia spec­u­la­tion. Some­body found out I bought some Tribune debt as an in­vest­ment, and ob­vi­ously I’m in­ter­ested in Tribune do­ing well so I get my debt back and make a profit, maybe. To the ex­tent that any­one wants to ask me what I think or who I think would be good to run the com­pany, I’m cer­tainly avail­able for that. More than that, it’s early spec­u­la­tion.

I’d be glad to hear who you think would be a good can­di­date.

I don’t know!

What do you make of the fun­da­men­tal shift in the pub­lic’s mind about on­line con­tent and me­dia — that it should all be free? Where is that go­ing to take us?

I think that’s over. That was the Nap­ster era. I think it was a moment in time. I think most of what’s called the de­vel­oped world un­der­stands that con­tent has value. That doesn’t mean they don’t want it less ex­pen­sively and more ef­fi­ciently and ev­ery­where all the time, but I think the idea of free is no longer the dom­i­nant think­ing of the day.

So you think the pay model will be ac­cepted?

It de­pends. Things that are com­modi­ties with no brand and no ed­i­to­rial ex­per­tise — it’s just news or in­for­ma­tion or sports or weather or stock quotes — the pre­mium pric­ing for those things is over for­ever. It’s just too avail­able ev­ery­where. But pay­ing for gifted peo­ple, one-of-a-kind books or movies or tele­vi­sion shows, for opin­ions — not only is it not over but it’s valu­able. All of this will have to evolve.

Your book is about how busi­ness part­ners work to­gether, like you and Frank Wells at Dis­ney, War­ren Buf­fett and Char­lie Munger. You cite an ex­em­plary moment in part­ner­ship, the moment be­fore film­mak­ers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer won the best pic­ture Os­car. Howard groaned with a stom­achache, and Grazer pulled a Tums out of his tuxedo pocket.

All of these part­ner­ships are in­ter­est­ing in their own way. [I] only con­cen­trated on part­ner­ships that were long last­ing, and the ups and downs, the suc­cess and fail­ure to­gether. They reached the pin­na­cle of their suc­cess [to­gether], and what did they need? ATums.

Nowa­days the im­age of the CEO seems to be some­one who’s part cow­boy and part se­rial killer, an­swer­able to no one. Your book is about the op­po­site model: shar­ing power.

One of the rea­sons Shake­speare was so revered [was that] he took peo­ple in very high places and made them very hu­man, with all the tragedy and com­edy that goes with that. We all tend to think that these com­pa­nies are mono­lith[s], that they’re all [op­er­ated] by some di­vine choice, and of course that’s not true. They’re all run by peo­ple, and [if the lead­ers] don’t have their act to­gether, they can de­stroy a com­pany. My premise is that you’re bet­ter off with part­ner­ships, the checks and bal­ances. There’s no envy or jeal­ousy be­tween each other.

You make it sound al­most mag­i­cal.

Many mar­riages are the same way. Peo­ple have a com­mon in­ter­est; they en­joy be­ing in the fox­hole to­gether, the dark hu­mor that comes of fail­ure and then the high-fiv­ing that comes of suc­cess. They pro­tect each other; they trust each other. Some­times peo­ple who act alone and don’t have a sound­ing board start be­liev­ing their own words, get ar­ro­gant, do things that are over the line, fi­nally de­stroy­ing them­selves. It’s not al­ways the case; many sin­gle prac­ti­tion­ers do have a strong [counter] voice some­where in their life.

How does the part­ner­ship model dove­tail with the cre­ative com­pe­ti­tion you en­cour­aged at Dis­ney?

What I en­cour­aged [was] cre­ativ­ity, com­pe­ti­tion, but not nec­es­sar­ily com­pe­ti­tion in­side your own or­ga­ni­za­tion. Com­pe­ti­tion out­side, cer­tainly. I think one of the rea­sons we never got in trou­ble in any eth­i­cal are­nas is that we were al­ways check­ing each other, putting the smell test to ev­ery­thing be­yond the le­gal test. And it was just more fun to talk to some­one on a daily ba­sis about the ups and downs.

You write that the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness is one of the most eth­i­cal you’ve found. That’ll raise a lot of eye­brows.

That’s be­cause the me­dia and ev­ery­body just loves look­ing with a mi­cro­scope at movie stars, pa­parazzi trail­ing peo­ple to night­clubs and all that. I grew up in the tele­vi­sion busi­ness; if you weren’t of your word, you couldn’t make it. It just moved too quickly. Con­tracts fol­lowed deals by a long time.

Barry Diller and I [were] try­ing to fig­ure out why it was so eth­i­cal com­pared to other busi­nesses. Maybe be­cause in the early days, all broad­cast sta­tions were li­censed by the govern­ment; there were very high hur­dles to jump over to get a li­cense. Or maybe it was just the na­ture of the busi­ness.

I found the movie busi­ness to be sim­i­lar. Busi­nesses where you keep hav­ing to go back to the same peo­ple over and over again, whether man­agers or tal­ent or re­porters — you have to deal hon­estly with peo­ple, oth­er­wise you lose all cred­i­bil­ity, and those peo­ple who don’t tend to be weeded out. I’ll hold up the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness any day of the week

Your in­vest­ment com­pany owns Topps — base­ball cards and bub­ble gum. Is there a sen­ti­men­tal at­trac­tion for you?

Just be­cause it’s a dig­i­tal age doesn’t mean that ev­ery other age is to be for­got­ten. There’s a sen­ti­men­tal hold, but it’s also a re­al­is­tic busi­ness. If you’re deal­ing with sen­ti­men­tal­ity, which was [the sit­u­a­tion when] I came to Dis­ney in 1984, then you’re go­ing to be a mu­seum cu­ra­tor.

Speak­ing of base­ball, are you a Dodgers fan?

I’m a New York Giants base­ball fan. Un­for­tu­nately, they left [ New York for San

Fran­cisco] about 40 years ago, which is still very an­noy­ing to me!

Ev­ery com­pany seems to have a dis­tinct cul­ture and a char­ac­ter; if Dis­ney were a per­son, how would you de­scribe its char­ac­ter?

I just don’t know whether your ques­tion is valid. Com­pa­nies are made up of peo­ple, and peo­ple change. I learned in my high school busi­ness course — the only one I took — that com­pa­nies are im­mor­tal, com­pa­nies live for­ever, or they should. Peo­ple don’t, so com­pa­nies change. Dis­ney was es­tab­lished by a man who had a high sense of ex­cel­lence and real true fam­ily val­ues. I think we were able to main­tain and grow it. Bob Iger is do­ing the same. Com­pa­nies take on the per­son­al­ity of the groups of peo­ple that work in it, not just the founder or the present leader.

I guess I asked the ques­tion in part be­cause of Roy Dis­ney, Walt’s nephew, who died last year. He had his own vi­sion of what the soul of Dis­ney was; he brought you in but, years later, mounted a share­hold­ers’ re­volt to get you out.

He was very in­ter­ested af­ter his un­cle died in pre­serv­ing the com­pany and thought he was hav­ing trou­ble do­ing that, and he brought me in. I worked very closely, kept him in­formed for many, many years. To­ward the end, I didn’t re­ally be­lieve in what he wanted to do creatively in­side the com­pany, and I think he re­sented that, but I don’t think I found him ever strug­gling for the soul of the com­pany.

Is Dis­ney still a pres­ence in your life?

I have a big fond­ness for Dis­ney. I talk to all the peo­ple at Dis­ney; I’m still very friendly with most of the se­nior man­agers. Most of the se­nior man­agers are still se­nior man­agers that I put in place or helped to put in place. I think it’s be­ing well run. Did I want to stay on the board? No, be­cause I’m do­ing things that would be in con­flict if I were a board mem­ber.

Did you watch Bugs Bunny, the com­pe­ti­tion? Come on, you can ’fess up.

Of course! I never saw a Dis­ney film un­til I had a child. I wasn’t re­ally brought up on Dis­ney. In Man­hat­tan, when I grew up, we went to Broad­way. I didn’t know any­body in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness; I wasn’t in­volved in the en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness; I prob­a­bly knew as much about Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as I did a Dis­ney char­ac­ter.

You did a talk show; would you do it again?

I did some­thing like 100 in­ter­views and en­joyed it but got very busy do­ing a lot of [other] things. I en­joyed the in­ter­view­ing process a lot. Did I like the ar­rang­ing and all the or­ga­ni­za­tion? Not as much as I did when the cam­era turned on. You do a lot of re­search, it takes a lot of time, and if you’re go­ing to do it well, you have to find the things that in­ter­est you that haven’t been asked a thou­sand times, and that’s not easy.

So who’s your next part­ner?

That’s to be de­cided. My wife will re­main my next part­ner, for sure.

Ge­naro Molina

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