As media moguls, the heads of Comcast Corp. and The Walt Disney Co. could hardly be more different. Brian Roberts is a soft-spoken scion of a family business who recently entered the realm of media big shots; Michael Eisner is an entrenched CEO who is under fire for a combative management style and a generous payout to a Hollywood buddy.
Just 44 years old, Roberts has quickly become one of the CEOs to watch in the media world. Two years ago he pulled off a deal to buy AT&T Corp.’s cable systems, vaulting his Philadelphia-based company to the top spot in the cable industry.
Last year he struck again, reaching a deal to sell Comcast’s majority stake in the shopping channel QVC Inc. for $7.9 billion to one of the savviest dealmakers in the media industry, John Malone of Liberty Media Corp.
Still, Roberts remained below the public radar, taking a brass-tacks approach to running his business and maintaining a modest personal style that bore no relation to the swashbuckling personas of past media moguls such as Ted Turner, or even more recently Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi Universal or Bob Pittman of AOL.
Last summer, after the QVC deal was announced, Roberts quietly made it known that Comcast was interested in getting much deeper into the “content” business — media-speak for movies, TV and other programming — but he was coy about his plans.
Now, with an in-your-face challenge to Michael Eisner’s 20-year reign at the top of Disney, there is little doubt about the extent of Roberts’ ambitions.
Announcing his unsolicited offer for Disney just hours before Eisner was to make upbeat presentations to investors about his progress in turning Disney around, Roberts struck at the exact moment that would embarrass and challenge Eisner the most.
Eisner is already facing a revolt from former board members Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Disney founder Walt Disney, and Stanley E. Gold about his performance and lack of a succession plan. Eisner is 61 years old.
In a presentation to investors Wednesday, Roberts aimed a few barbs indirectly at Eisner, saying that Comcast attracts top talent and has become known as an excellent and enjoyable place to work.
Disney, by contrast, has become known for its executive brain drain, which some critics attribute to Eisner’s rough personal style and tendency to micromanage the company’s affairs.
During a highly publicized trial in 1999 over compensation due to Jeffrey Katzenberg after he left Disney, Eisner admitted that he may have said about Katzenberg: “I hate the little midget.”
More recently, Pixar Animation Studios broke off talks to extend its distribution agreement with Disney last month. Some attributed the fallout to tensions between Eisner and Pixar chief Steve Jobs (news – web sites), who took a jab at Eisner on a recent conference call by reading from a news report noting that Eisner had misjudged the potential of Pixar’s blockbuster film “Finding Nemo.”
Eisner’s generosity with his old friend Michael Ovitz is at the center of a still-simmering controversy that could cause Eisner and Disney’s board serious trouble.
Ovitz received a multimillion dollar pay package after serving as Disney’s president for only 18 months, and a shareholder lawsuit over the payout has received clearance to go to trial. The case could hold Disney’s directors accountable for approving the massive payout.