Eisner on Dentists, Topps and 'Foolish' Writers Strike

Former Disney Chief Speaks to Ad Age About Baseball Cards and Bazooka Joe

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Michael Eisner spent 21 years atop Walt Disney Co., growing it from $1.5 billion in annual revenue to nearly $31 billion when he left in fall 2005.

Since then, he's been using his Tornante Co. to make an eclectic mix of investments throughout the private-equity landscape, leading many -- even, he laughingly admitted, his own family -- to question: What in tarnation is he up to?
Michael Eisner
Michael Eisner Credit: Jeff Frank

So far, those bets have involved one of two qualities: an emphasis on sports content and digital distribution. Or both, as in the case of his latest investment -- a $385 million buyout of private trading-card and candy company Topps.

We caught up with Mr. Eisner, who had just returned from a media conference in Brazil, for a wide-ranging discussion about why Hollywood's striking writers are "foolish," why dentists make for great TV and why Topps is no Mickey Mouse operation.

Advertising Age: When you ran Disney, you were turning out two new products a week: new rides, theme parks, TV shows, "High School Musical" home-pregnancy tests, that sort of thing. But you're just as busy now as you were then. What are you planning with all these different investments? What does Michael Eisner's new empire ultimately look like?

Michael Eisner: Well, it's not Disney. It's looking for brands that can be created -- or re-created, stuff that is not in public view until the time comes when it's in the interest of the brand to put it in the public view. With private companies, one has the ability of doing things without so much pressure quarter to quarter. Things that strike an emotional chord with the public are things I am interested in.

Ad Age: So can Bazooka Joe really become the next Mickey Mouse?

Mr. Eisner: Topps is a company that is in the DNA of a large majority of Americans -- predominantly males for whom it was part of childhood -- and I am hoping to take that sensitivity to this brand and build that into a sports-media company.

One of the assets is that [Bazooka Joe] character. It would be foolish of me not to try and build that character into something as much as or more than he ever was. I don't think that at the height of Bazooka Joe he was ever as big as the lowest moment of Mickey Mouse, but I do think it'll be fun to try and make Bazooka Joe into something. Mostly, it's making Topps -- through the media of filmed entertainment, internet and television, through the cards and taking them to the digital world -- to turn it into a far bigger media company than it is today.

Ad Age: How do you digitize Topps?

Mr. Eisner: You do the same thing I did at Disney: First, you stick to your knitting and make what exists work well. Then you expand into other kinds of content -- digital delivery of [trading] cards: mobile, internet, "eTopps," whatever it is. And then you go beyond that, into branding Topps on sports movies or sports-cable channels.

Look, here is what sports is about, and what Roone Arledge taught me at ABC: It's the stories about the players. It's the stories of the team. It's not only the reality of the story on the field, it's the emotion of the story in the clubhouse and after the game is over. Kids predominantly, but everybody loves their heroes. Sports is emotion, entertainment and drama. And that's what Topps is about.

Ad Age: One of the ironies of spending two decades as the head of a big media conglomerate is that you're paid to have your finger on the pulse of what's cool and where popular culture is going, but the job almost makes you the most isolated person on the planet. How does a 65-year-old multimillionaire stay connected to what's cool these days so that he knows he's headed in the right direction?

Mr. Eisner: Well, we're all much more connected now by new media, so you'd have to be pretty much brain-dead not to be connected. I have the benefit of being in the baby-boom generation, which was always the largest part of the population. I never spent any time thinking about popular entertainment: I just lived it. And I don't think about it now. You're informed by the very nature of being alive. A good story is still a good story.

Ad Age: You've been quoted as saying that you don't really care about technology, except that it "opens up eyes to content." You've invested in Veoh, a video site; founded Vuguru, an online-production company; now you've bought Topps, the trading-card and candy company. Is there an organizing principle to these investments?

Mr. Eisner: Yes and no. The connecting value is the value to inform or entertain, to create an emotional response one way or another. It could be the response you get from looking at the baseball card of player you think is pretty good, or it could be a line of comedy in a half-hour show. One of the reasons that comes to my mind is that I am sitting at my computer and I want to see the final storyboard of an animated, half-hour comedy show that I'm developing for prime-time television. It's something I'm financing and shooting, and that I'm going to take to the 10 traditional networks -- cable and broadcast -- come February. I think there's upside economic value to "South Park" and "The Simpsons" and "The Jetsons," and I'm playing in that arena. It's being produced and animated as we speak.

Ad Age: Can you tell us about it?

Mr. Eisner: It's called "Glenn Martin, D.D.S."

Ad Age: As in Doctor of Dental Science?

Mr. Eisner: Right. It's a comedy.

Ad Age: Naturally. Dentists are inherently funny.

Mr. Eisner: Inherently.

Ad Age: That's why they have the highest suicide rate.

Mr. Eisner: That's not part of this particular episode.

Ad Age: Let's hope not.

Mr. Eisner: If it doesn't get scheduled, that'll be the plight of it.

Ad Age: The town just shut down for the first writers strike in 20 years, largely over the issue of how writers -- and, of course, studios and networks -- will make money from new media. Also recently, Vuguru made a bunch of deals to distribute a localized version of the web series "Prom Queen" to Japan and France for both TV and mobile phones. Based on your strategy of making content that travels internationally and over the web, it would seem that Hollywood's writers are smart to hold out for more money for new media, no?

Mr. Eisner: No.

Ad Age: No?

Mr. Eisner: No. They're way early. This is a very foolish strike. The amount of economic upside over the length of the contract coming up is not worth giving up the present benefit of producing even the 20-plus shows that are on, say, ABC. It's shortsighted; it's not there yet. People like myself are trying to figure it out and, basically, create an industry. The only people that are playing in this are the established media companies that feel they have to, cause they don't want to be left behind; the young, up-and-coming entrepreneurs who are doing it because this is their way in; and then, people who can afford to dabble in it because it's "interesting." It's a completely misguided strike. And I'm pushing way up ahead. I did "Prom Queen," I'm doing one called "The All-for-Nots" [a documentary-styled comedy that follows indie- rock bands on tour]. I'm shooting a third one that we're selling the rights in Japan and dubbing it for France. But you know, at the end of the day, the amount of economic profit that we could all make together could maybe get us through a day at Starbucks. It's just not worth it.

Ad Age: Yet you see value in online?

Mr. Eisner: Yes. There's ancillary value in taking already-produced material and putting it on iTunes or whatever: "Lost," "Desperate Houswives." But I wouldn't have gone on strike over this issue. I can think of a lot more issues that are more important.

Ad Age: NBC Universal's Jeff Zucker was warning last week that the new digital business models were turning media revenue from, as he put it, "dollars into pennies." So who the hell is Steve Jobs to say that songs are worth 99ยข, or that TV shows are worth a $1.99, or that movies should cost $9.99?

I don't think anyone knows the answer. I think Steve Jobs is selling hardware. And if he can get content companies to give him content that's very cheap to help sell that hardware, then, well, he's smarter than the next guy. I'm not saying that the value of the iPod and the iPhone is not helping Apple. But I don't think if I were a writer I would strike and give up my revenue on one of Jeff Zucker's shows to walk in a picket line for a piece of nonexistent revenue. However, there will be a time when it will be essential that the writers participate in this. That time may be three years away.

Ad Age: Do you think entertainment has been artificially priced too low to make it a viable business online?

Mr. Eisner: Well, there's no artificial pricing unless the government prices it.

Ad Age: But NBC wanted to take a show like "Heroes" and charge $2.99, to see if the market could support it, and it's current price is artificial in the sense that Steve Jobs said, "Um, no, it stays $1.99."

Mr. Eisner: Well, he's cleverer than the next guy, and he's got the hot toy. That may or may not change. Movies, generally, were priced at movie theaters, I think, below inflation for 30 years. But the price of entertainment is market-driven. The distribution platform that is being created by broadband companies like Veoh is going to increase the size of the audience. And the bigger the audience gets, the less you have to charge per unit. So it is a very exciting future.

Ad Age: What excites you about it?

Mr. Eisner: I'm interested in it because there are no gatekeepers. You don't have to be on iTunes, you don't have to be on Comcast. You don't have to be on ABC. You don't have to get approval of anybody. And eventually, advertisers are going to see the benefit of content that's produced in a superior way, with better emotional hinges, and those people will have a good business.

Ad Age: A lot of users say they want a compelling online entertainment experience, but they want as few ads as possible interfering with their enjoyment of that entertainment experience ...

Mr. Eisner: I don't buy that.

Ad Age: Really?

Mr. Eisner: Well, I think when people are given a choice between a subscription service and an advertising service, they choose the advertising service. I think it's easy to say, "We don't want commercials," but we're used to commercials, and they can be entertaining in themselves -- unless its overbearing. A 30-second commercial in a 90-second online spot is overbearing; a 15-second spot in a five-minute piece is fine. I think the audience will accept advertising.

Ad Age: What do you think of YouTube?

Mr. Eisner: The web needs editors, and by that I mean like a head of programming at a television network creating a schedule. It's not really happened yet on the internet. The YouTubes [and their clones] -- they just want to be ubiquitous, for anybody. You get a lot of skateboarding cats and groin-hitting teenagers. But eventually editors will evolve, and there will be sites that will be known for a certain level of quality. And maybe it'll be brands that'll do that: General Motors will known for the brand that creates an internet site with great entertainment on it.

Ad Age: Do you think user-generated content is a threat to Hollywood's professionally created content?

Mr. Eisner: When a user generator is really good, he or she becomes a professional. How different is that from somebody who's in regional theater who becomes very good and finds her way to the West Coast? The user-generated people out there? I think they'll tend to go to sites and places that will nurture them -- and pay them. Whether that's Hollywood or New York or cyberspace, I don't know. But I think the cream will rise, and the rising cream will become professionals, and the professionals will be paid, and you'll have a new way of finding talent.

Ad Age: But if this rising cream of talent can find a way to monetize its own content, then it doesn't need to be nurtured by a network, right?

Mr. Eisner: Maybe. I don't think you have to be aligned with a mega-monolith company. But I do think the organizer of creativity -- in the old days, it might have been called the book publisher or the Broadway impresario or ballet company or network executive -- I don't think that that's going away in a world of unlimited access.
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