Iger doing business in new world

Dis chief talks streaming, teaming and possible Leno scheming

Disney CEO Robert Iger expects primetime TV shows to be simulcast online sooner or later, runs ABC more like a content studio given that its distribution brand value is diminished and sees no long-term effects from the recent WGA strike on how the entertainment business works.

At a breakfast event Tuesday organized by Syracuse University's Newhouse School, the Disney head also took issue with calls for stricter media concentration rules in this election year. Concentration worries are "irrelevant" in the digital age, where consumers have so many channels and providers to get information from, he argued. "I laugh at it," Iger said. "It's a joke. It's old world (policy and politics) applied to a new world. It's not rooted in anything real."

Iger also wouldn't rule out a play by ABC for Jay Leno, whose NBC late-night deal ends next year, or making Disney content available on Hulu, the NBC Universal/News Corp. joint online video venture.

"It's not something we typically comment on," he said after a pause when interviewer and New Yorker writer Ken Auletta asked him about possibly luring Leno to ABC.

"We're taking a wait-and-see approach," Iger said when questioned about Hulu. "We didn't think it was necessary to get involved from the inception."

One key theme throughout the conversation Tuesday was the need for industry executives to do business differently in the digital age. For example, Iger said Disney early on decided to avoid marketing its recently acquired online networking site Club Penguin to death — which he argued is an old-media instinct — to keep users engaged.

Apple founder and Disney board member Steve Jobs, who also is the entertainment company's largest shareholder, is "an important adviser to me" on such issues, Iger said.

Speaking of Jobs and Apple, while NBC Universal has wrangled with Apple's iTunes over its standardized pricing of content, Iger said he has no qualms about it. "Keeping it simple for the consumer is unbelievably valuable," he argued, adding that while Apple determines iTunes consumer prices, content providers still determine what they charge.

Iger also cited the importance of making content available on all platforms in the digital age.

Asked by Auletta why ABC isn't making primetime hits like "Dancing With the Stars" available online at the same time as on the network, Iger said that is "probably something that will be done" and that there is "nothing wrong" with that concept.

However, he emphasized that his and other firms still are "maximizing value by windowing" the release of desirable content. "We are maximizing revenue and exposure."

Iger also reiterated a previous comment that consumers nowadays are mainly attracted by specific content and show brands, even though the ABC network does have "some residual brand value," he said.

Investments in such hits as "Grey's Anatomy," "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" that can be exploited globally have proven "extremely profitable," Iger said. "We don't see the network only as a distribution platform. It's more like a studio for us."

With all the recent talk about major changes in the TV business in the aftermath of the WGA strike, Iger took a contrarian view Tuesday.

"I don't think it will have a big, long-term effect on the way business is done," he said. "It's a deal that both sides will be able to live with. It will not make business bad."

Iger also was queried about rumored talks by CBS Corp.'s CBS News to outsource newsgathering to Time Warner's CNN.

"We had ample opportunity to do deals with CNN, including the one I read about this morning in the (New York) Times, and for a variety of reasons opted not to," he said.

Iger said ABC News was never looking for any outsourcing or reduction of its news operation, just like CBS News denied any such plans late Monday (HR 4/8). "We were interested in a true joint venture," he said.