Michael Eisner may take reins at Tribune
Deal would include Comcast exec Jeff ShellMichael Eisner is not a man with many close friends. But John Angelo is one of the few.
Angelo is co-founder of hedge fund Angelo, Gordon & Co., one of the senior creditors in the complex Tribune Co. bankruptcy. And he's the person who approached Eisner about joining the board of a reconfigured Tribune Co.
Formidable legal obstacles must be overcome before new management can be installed at the troubled media company. But Eisner, formerly Disney chairman and CEO, is in talks to become chairman of the board, possibly with former colleague Jeff Shell, now president of the Comcast Programming Group, as his CEO.
A source close to Eisner said he believes Tribune is "a massively undervalued asset" that "if managed properly could be turned around."
The Tribune Co. owns 23 television stations, including KTLA-TV Los Angeles, and a group of newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. The L.A. Times first reported the talks.
Though Eisner has told associates he's glad that he no longer has to contend with running a public company, several say they believe he is bored with his current ventures, which include creating content for the Internet.
"I can certainly see how, despite his protests to the contrary, he felt on the sidelines," one associate said. "My own pop psychology is that he would love something where the story line is, 'He's done it again.' "
Television veteran Fred Silverman, who was Eisner's boss long ago at ABC and consulted on programming at the network when Eisner was still at Disney, said he believes Eisner could, in fact, do it again.
"He certainly knows how to grow a company," he said. "The thing with Michael is he'll come along and the next thing you know, they'll own (a company like) Lionsgate."
It is not clear that Eisner has any particular affinity for news, though he played reporter to write his upcoming book, "Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed."
"I ended up learning a lot," Eisner wrote in an e-mail sent to friends Wednesday. "I interviewed Bill and Melinda Gates ... I visited with the producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard ... I went to Paris to speak with Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti. I interviewed Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus about their partnership at Home Depot and Ian Schrager about his collaboration at Studio 54 with the late Steve Rubell."
A source who has seen the book says the first chapter discusses Eisner's relationship at Disney with his late No. 2, Frank Wells, who died in a helicopter crash in 1994. The last chapter in the book is about Angelo and his partnership with Michael Gordon.
The subject of the book is not without irony. Eisner is known for high-profile ruptures with erstwhile partners, including a spectacular split with former Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1994 and an equally splashy rift with erstwhile friend Michael Ovitz, whom Eisner hired at Disney from CAA and then fired after 18 months. And the most damaging was his ill-advised battle with Roy Disney, which ultimately led to a shareholder revolt at Disney and Eisner's ouster from the company.
Noting those conflicts, a former co-worker who received Eisner's e-mail about the book said, "I almost fell out of my chair."
But in his e-mail, Eisner said he was inspired by the "magic" of his partnership with Wells. "We're all brought up in a world of sharing, from birth to at least through 6th grade," he wrote, "but somewhere along the way, that spirit all too often seems to get lost in the competitive world of life and business."
Eisner's relationship with Angelo goes back to childhood. The two were friends who spent summers together at Eisner's beloved Keewaydin summer camp in Vermont. "You have a way of taking charge and people want to follow you even though they aren't always sure why," Angelo told him then.
Later, the two men dated and then married two close friends, Judy Hart and Jane Breckenridge. Both couples sent their children to Keewaydin.
The potential management lineup at Tribune would reunite Eisner with Shell, who worked for Eisner at Disney. Shell is a highly regarded cable executive who was rumored to be in position for a major role at NBC Universal once Comcast completes its acquisition of that company.
Several sources who have had dealings with Shell at Comcast, Disney or Fox suggest that it's seemingly "a weird move" for him given the issues plaguing Tribune.
"Jeff must know something about where he'd be in the future Comcast-NBC Uni merger that makes him want to bolt -- or it's an unfortunate leak that may question his commitment going forward in that merger," one former Tribune insider said.
Other sources close to the situation said Shell is a "buttoned-down" executive who moved to Philadelphia for the Comcast job and fits well with the company's culture. But though Shell is highly regarded, one said, many people are vying for a top position following the merger and "there might not be a job for him."
Comcast declined to comment but a source said Shell, who is now on vacation, communicated to at least some Comcast executives on Wednesday about the situation via e-mail, trying to calm concerns and saying he hopes and expects to be around once the acquisition of NBC Universal closes.
Elizabeth Guider in Los Angeles and Georg Szalai in New York contributed to this report.