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With its heavy reliance on television and film content, Disney might have more at stake than nearly any other conglomerate in the WGA strike.
But asked recently about the stoppage, Disney president and CEO Robert Iger said it was “just a shame” — not exactly the bulldog rhetoric that legendary Universal topper Lew Wasserman might have used.
The moguls, and the multinational corporations they head, are providing an unprecedented dynamic to the industry dispute. The strike entered its 24th day Wednesday as negotiators met for a third straight daylong session in Los Angeles and scribes manned picket lines around the world. Even the 1988 work stoppage occurred before the wave of mergers that created the interlocking global TV and film behemoths.
The strike has put conglomerate executives at a crossroads: Do they bring their weight to bear at the negotiating table and in the press, or do they resist the temptation and stick to diplomatic niceties or silence? After all, conglomerate execs have some of the most influential voices in the entertainment landscape. But they also are afforded the luxury not given to studio chiefs of staying above the fray.
While such figures as Iger and NBC Universal’s Jeff Zucker are all reportedly involved in backchannel negotiations, they’ve taken advantage of their executive privilege and have been noticeably quiet in public forums.
Contrast that with a sabre-rattling tone of News Corp. COO Peter Chernin, who has actively touted the ways the strike could help his company’s business. “We save more money in term deals and story costs and probably the lack of making pilots than we lose in potential advertising,” he crowed in the strike’s early days.
In a more muted way, CBS’ Leslie Moonves, who also is said to be involved in backchannel negotiations, also seems to be attempting to balance flexibility and ideology. In a memo to staffers last week, he nonetheless wrote that “CBS cannot make an agreement that places our company at a disadvantage or makes it impossible for us to meet our commitments to our many constituencies.”
Individual temperaments certainly play a part in the different reactions. For instance, Viacom CEO Philippe Dauman is generally restrained in his public comments, and has been low-key on the strike. But the varying approaches might more to do with strategy than style.
At executive suites in New York and Los Angeles, moguls and CEOs are weighing the benefits of using their profile against the concerns of damaging long-term relationships. “Why try to create something bad in the context of the strike when you’re going to have to create something good after it’s over?” explained an exec at a company whose CEO has been quiet.
Moguls also might have learned a lesson from another incident in which a media mogul used his bully pulpit.
“I think the perception has been since the Tom Cruise incident with Sumner (Redstone in 2006) that when you speak out and take on a star it can be counterproductive,” longtime entertainment analyst Harold Vogel said.
Vogel and other experts also said that the modern conglomerate is so diverse and diffuse that a strike doesn’t carry nearly the impact it once might have. Time Warner, the country’s biggest entertainment conglomerate, derives a large chunk of its revenue from its cable, publishing and AOL operations, for example.
Playing down the strike plays into their companies’ Wall Street strategy, too. Studio chiefs can’t afford to dismiss the strike , but CEOs would prefer that Wall Street forgot a strike was going on.
During a Time Warner quarterly conference call this month, top execs had an answer about the strike waiting in front of them in case analysts asked. But the question never came, and CEO Richard Parsons and his successor, Jeffrey Bewkes, happily avoided mentioning it at all.
Still, the publicity offices of several CEOs describe the benefits of talking a tougher game. In addition to leverage in the public relations battle, that kind of rhetoric provides cover should the economic impact of a prolonged strike begin to be felt. In a public relations sense, the moguls could easily recast the strike as a culprit, rather than a non-factor.
As the strike wears on, some execs could swing to the Chernin side, adopting a tougher and more explicit strike line. As one media observer said, “There’s a reason these people came to run some of the biggest companies in the world, and it’s not by dancing around issues.”
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