Brat Brawl 

Disney and Comcast fortunate sons need therapy more than this takeover

Thursday, Feb 19 2004

What’s important when it comes to Hollywood isn’t the financials but the friendships, foes and families. So, while Wall Street analysts crunch numbers about cable-giant Comcast’s hardball pitch for Disney, we only have to look at the relationships to see what’s really going on.

This isn’t a battle between Big Media as much as it is between Brat Media. How come no one has noticed that the major combatants in this fight are all rich kids, specifically sons of fathers with wealth and influence and power? It’s their playground brawls that usually spell bad news for poor shareholders — not to mention the addition of humongous debt on corporate books and the loss of millions of dollars in goodwill write-downs. Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner has riches on both sides of his family. Comcast president and CEO Brian L. Roberts’ father founded the cable giant. Steve Burke — Roberts’ No. 2, the former ABC broadcasting president and the architect of this revenge bid offer (his loathing of Eisner is an open secret) —is the son of the former president of Capital Cities/ABC before it was bought by Disney.

For that matter, considering TV’s hottest star right now is that other spoiled scion, the unbe-weave-able Donald Trump, maybe he should preside over this schoolyard spat. Since Comcast shareholders are mad at Roberts and Burke for bringing down the company’s stock price with their bid, and Disney shareholders are fed up with Eisner, period, let Trump decide who to stare down and declare: “You’re fired!” (Better yet, give the trio all trying to “do one for Dad” lots of therapy, and a long spanking.)

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Just the phrase hostile takeover attempt juices everyone in Hollywood who, at one time or another, has fought mano a mano with Disney and harbored hatred of Eisner because for 20 years he has infused the cuddly-character company with his own inimitably vicious corporate style. [Full disclosure: I am in a legal dispute with Disney over the news media’s right to truthfully report on the entertainment giant’s business activities.]

All of a sudden, the Comcast offer — though rejected Monday by Eisner’s minions on the board — meant it was open season for the media on MDE, as Eisner calls himself. Even the usually Disney-cheerleading Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times were penning Eisner’s obit. And that shrieking sound from the direction of Burbank was Disney’s harpy, Zenia Mucha, insisting to reporters that Eisner is not yet six feet under.

No longer was the kvetching just by dissident board members Roy Disney, Stanley Gold and Andrea Van de Camp. Even Institutional Shareholders Services recommended last week that Disney stockholders not re-elect Eisner to the board because, when it comes to the company’s troubles, ISS complained “all roads lead back to Eisner.”

Of course, no one was loving Eisner’s fall into disgrace more than Roy and Stanley. Their Web site, SaveDisney.com, kept track of every attack on the company and, seemingly, every shareholder as well. They instructed Eisner’s unfaithful how to “vote no” against the CEO and even provided the required forms. They arranged for special discount travel arrangements so shareholders could go to the annual meeting on March 3 in Philadelphia (coincidentally, Comcast’s headquarters city). And they’re hosting a briefing and reception in that venue a day before the official company conclave.

Though Roy and Stanley say they had nothing to do with Comcast’s bid — yeah, sure, it was just kismet — Burke did tailor his remarks to appeal to them by pledging to return Disney’s animation to its former glory. No doubt, Pixar’s Steve Jobs was listening, too, since his decision not to re-up with Disney helped spark Comcast’s attempted coup. Which is why Comcast reached out to Jobs last week for support of a Disney takeover and announced that bringing back Pixar was one of its "first" goals. It’s as if all Eisner’s enemies are ganging up on him en masse. Little doubt that Disney’s deal to buy a few over-the-hill Jim Henson characters (but not Big Bird or Elmo) on Tuesday was Eisner’s feeble attempt to show he’s not been paralyzed by this talk of the takeover or his possible exit.

If his removal is such a slam dunk, why, then, are financial analysts one after the other going on CNBC and opining that Eisner won’t be toast?

Sadly for the company and its shareholders, it seems Eisner will survive this latest crisis for the very reason he deserves to be shown the door: He’s a nasty piece of work.

How nasty? Well, just the fact that his new best friend is Barry Diller should say it all. (The folks at Vivendi Universal are still seeing psychiatrists due to the months spent with him as their boss.) Though Park Avenue born and bred, Eisner battles like a street thug. In turn, Disney is regularly accused of a near-pathological willingness to lie, cheat and steal as it conducts its business. Want evidence? Just look within Disney’s 101 Litigations and the many letters and depositions on file with the courts.

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