Forget FCC rules: Bumbling moguls limit their own power

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All the hand-wringing over the Federal Communications Commission's vote this week on media ownership misses the point. We don't need federal rules to check the power of media monoliths. Foolish management already performs that function quite nicely.

On any given day last week, all you had to do after reading a newspaper or magazine article detailing concerns over the FCC's plan to loosen ownership restrictions was flip to the next page. Inevitably, there would be a story about the executive-level bungles that had screwed up yet another media giant-often a story so unbelievable it would have doubled you over with laughter if a good portion of your kid's college fund or your retirement savings hadn't been linked to this overpaid visionary's failed grand strategy.

Out of AOL Time Warner came word that Steve Case, who engineered what is widely considered to be the worst merger in business history, now supports the idea of spinning off America Online, presumably into a company he would once again lead to online glory. Or maybe he doesn't want to do that. Maybe he's just saying it to, you know, stir things up. Because he's mad at the other AOL Time Warner executives for not allowing him to play with them anymore. And you thought Ted Turner was a few cards short of a full deck.

Speaking of delusional moguls, none other than Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose Hollywood dreams-Newsweek reminds us he used to write songs for Dionne Warwick-cost him a family fortune, has emerged as a likely bidder to buy back the entertainment assets he sold to Vivendi in another misguided media merger. Vivendi, of course, now wants to shed those holdings, including Universal's successful studio and music operations, to reduce the unwieldy debt load it assumed when it purchased them just three years ago.

Lurking in Vivendi's background is Barry Diller, who has been just about to anoint The Next Big Thing ever since I was in college. Why Diller is still hailed as a leading media visionary when his best accomplishment of the last decade has been to make himself incredibly rich is beyond me, although I'll note that many people appear to be afraid to criticize him. (Perhaps I should be, too. Note to assistant: If Diller calls, tell him my column was actually written by Jayson Blair and that I had nothing to do with it.)

Finally we turn our attention to the Mouse House, where boss Mickey Eisner is still trying to breathe life into the stock price and quiet calls for his head from restless board members. With ABC still several seasons from a turnaround, and terrorism fears keeping the lines short at theme parks, Eisner's not likely to be standing on comfortable ground any time soon.

Disney does have some bright spots, notably the now-in-theaters "Finding Nemo," an aquatic Pixar Animation Studios tale many critics have already named the year's best big-studio release (admittedly faint praise). Since they have one of the few successful partnerships in the media business, Disney and Pixar are doing what any Hollywood partners would: They're trying to tear it apart. Eisner and Pixar's Steve Jobs are barely on speaking terms, and the latter is open to offers from rival studios.

There's always an exception and, in this case, it's Rupert Murdoch, who clearly is shrewd enough to rule the media universe yet smart enough not to push his advantage too far.

As you can see, then, there's little to worry about if media companies are handed broad freedoms to expand their empires. Michael Powell can give the moguls all the rope they want. They'll surely end up hopelessly tangled in it.

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