Iger takes stand in 'Millionaire' case

Disney exec reiterates that game show was a hit

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Disney president and CEO Bob Iger confirmed the obvious Wednesday: "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was a hit TV show for ABC.

During the course of two hours, an attorney for "Millionaire" creator Celador had Iger revisiting the success of the game show by reading e-mails, financial reports and Nielsen ratings -- all from a decade ago.

It was part of Disney's ongoing effort to defend itself against a lawsuit that claims Celador is owed as much as $270 million because ABC, Buena Vista Television and Valleycrest Prods. cut sweetheart deals favoring the three Disney-owned businesses at the expense of Celador.

With a couple of annual reports in hand to jog his memory, Iger testified that Disney's TV broadcast unit grew its revenue 21% in 2000 over 1999, but Celador attorney Roman Silberfeld couldn't get Iger to attribute the jump solely to "Millionaire," which was on a ratings tear at the time.

"It was a factor," Iger said. "There were other factors."

Silberfeld read e-mails sent to Iger and others from Disney's research department that raved about "Millionaire's" early Nielsen ratings in August 1999. In one week, the audience grew from 16 million to 22 million, and ABC was experiencing a ratings jolt it hadn't seen in years.

Iger called it "a great performance for a summer program," but Silberfeld kept at it, making Iger repeat several times and in various ways how huge the show was.

But while Iger was a top Disney executive and the main man at ABC back then, he wasn't yet CEO. That title belonged to Michael Eisner.

Eisner is out of the country and unable -- at least so far -- to testify, but some e-mails from him were read aloud in court Wednesday. All of them advanced the same theme: that he was thrilled with the performance of "Millionaire."

"This program is going to turn around ABC, which was doing OK anyway," one e-mail said. "This kind of thing happens maybe once a decade," said another.

"It is quite awesome," Eisner said in an e-mail to the board of directors.

"He often got excited about things," Iger said of Eisner, while calling himself, on more than one occasion, "more measured" than his predecessor.

Back then, though, Iger was more animated than he was on the witness stand Wednesday, judging from an e-mail he sent Eisner that contained Nielsen data: "Read the whole thing!" he wrote.

On another occasion Iger wrote that "Millionaire" could affect Disney's stock price, a heady assessment given that the conglomerate's size should preclude any single TV show from having such an impact.

Iger explained to Silberfeld that what he meant was that it was important Wall Street to perceive ABC on the whole as a success and that "Millionaire" played a role.

Eisner also estimated that the rights to "Millionaire" could be worth $1 billion, and he compared "Millionaire" to a deal with the NFL that cost Disney $9 billion over eight years. Silberfeld's insinuation was clear: Why shouldn't Disney also pay $1 billion a year or more for the rights to "Millionaire"?

Instead, according to Eisner's e-mail, the show "costs almost nothing" -- a statement that Silberfeld seemed eager to introduce, given his claim that Disney underpaid for rights to "Millionaire."

Iger did his best to downplay Eisner's enthusiasm.

"He often got excited about things even to the point of making wild guesses," Iger said.

Plus, it's about risk, Iger explained, and "Millionaire" was an unknown entity back then, unlike pro football games. After all, Disney's code of business conduct -- which Silberfeld went over in detail -- requires executives to compete aggressively and fairly, "not to pay people more than they are owed," Iger told Disney lead attorney Marty Katz during cross examination.

In fact, Iger spent much of his two hours explaining the TV broadcast business, even correcting Silberfeld's jargon when he incorrectly used terms like "tentpole" and "halo effect" to describe "Millionaire's" importance as a lead-in show.

Iger also told the U.S. District Court -- including nine jurors, a half-dozen or so attorneys, Judge Virginia Phillips and 15 onlookers -- that Eisner was always on the hunt for the next "$64,000 Question," a quiz show phenomenon from a half-century ago.

The proceedings are expected to continue throughout the month, or longer, in the unlikely event that testimony from Eisner is required.