Stringer: Content drives digitization

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NEW YORK - Sony Corp. continues to see value in owning its entertainment and electronics assets under the same umbrella -- at least for now, chairman and CEO Howard Stringer said here Thursday night.

"You never say never," Stringer replied when asked if Sony could separate those two businesses. "But I need the power of entertainment and content to drive the digitization of the whole company."

He also argued that "the studio is integral" even if private equity firms may create some buzz for a possible sale. "Private equity is always humming up deals," Stringer said.

In an appearance at the 92nd Street Y, Stringer also rejected the notion that Sony's film studio unit is dependent on the "Spider-Man" franchise. While the hit "turned the studio around," Sony has had top box office rankings in recent years even without a "Spider-Man" film.

Stringer also said Thursday night that PlayStation 3 sales are up since recent price cuts have gained momentum. After dropping the price in Europe, over the past three weeks, the PS 3 has been the number one selling console in Europe, with the PS2 being No. 2, according to Stringer. The product is now selling three times as fast, and twice as fast in the U.S., he said.

"If this momentum continues," Sony will hit its target of selling 10 million PS 3 systems worldwide by the end of its fiscal year, the CEO concluded.

Stringer also expressed some envy for companies with a narrow product lineup. "Sometimes I wish there were just three products," he said, highlighting how Nintendo's stock price has zoomed to new highs this year due to the success of its Wii console.

Asked about the battle between Sony's Blu-Ray high-definition DVD format and the competing HD DVD, Stringer said if Sony lost out, it would have to change the harddrive for its PlayStation, but it wouldn't hurt the conglomerate too much beyond that.

He also signaled he would have preferred to integrate the two formats. "There was a chance to integrate (before I was in charge)," Stringer said. "I wish I could go back in time, because I heard it was all about saving face."

Asked why Microsoft Corp. is more supportive of the HD DVD, the Sony boss said Blu-Ray has stronger anti-piracy protections, "which is probably not in Microsoft's interest." He cited the competition between PS 3 and Microsoft's XBox 360 as a likely sub-plot behind this.

Stringer also intimated Thursday night that he doesn't speak Japanese and that "I never thought I'd be CEO." He added: "that wasn't really an ambition or expectation if any kind."

Asked about his next likely job once he leaves Sony, Stringer quipped he would likely "sink giggling into the sea." He added he has no interest in another CEO post after this given that "Sony is a tough act to follow" and that he would want to tread more lightly and maybe write. With a smile, he also said it would be "something of a miracle if I survive this (job) intact."

His lack of Japanese skills are no real hurdle despite early criticism, Stringer argued. "I wanted to make it really global," he said. "Most of my senior executives speak English to varying degrees."

Stringer said his position as executive producer of the CBS nightly news with Dan Rather was "the best job I ever had," although he added he wasn't the obvious choice for the post given his lack of hard news experience.

He also said he feels he spent much of his life "not being the obvious choice."

Asked about his preferences in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the Sony CEO admitted to being a Democratic supporter. After a follow-up question, he said he likes Hilary Clinton and has donated to her campaign.

Stringer also had the audience in stitches when he recounted how Queen Elizabeth knighted him, and he messed up the protocol by turning his back on her. When he realized his error, he just kept turning until he faced the Queen again and left her presence walking backwards as protocol calls for.

Asked about his attitude towards the monarchy, he said he finds the Queen "extraordinary." "Her poll ratings are a lot higher than George Bush's," he continued. "Then, whose isn't," he quipped.
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