Michael Wolff on Big Media: Where Are All the CEO Heir Apparents?

Illustration by: John Holcroft

As Robert Iger, Leslie Moonves and Philippe Dauman shoot toward retirement age without slowing, the next generation of media leaders sits on the sidelines, Wolff writes for THR

This story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The mogul-built media conglomerates — Time Warner, CBS, Walt Disney, Viacom and 21st Century Fox — were inherited in the new millennium by a cast of baby moguls, employees rather than entrepreneurs and creators. Now these leaders are nearing traditional retirement age, and in a situation usually alarming to shareholders, none of them has an evident heir. At this seemingly most-existential moment, with an uncertain and perilous future just over the horizon, no media company has put in place the person who will manage it there. Instead, each top executive has become more singular and entrenched.

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Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes, 62, having fought off Rupert Murdoch's bid for his company, is more public than at any previous time in his career and personally has committed to advancing his share price. Leslie Moonves, 65, has achieved near-mogul standing, almost as synonymous with CBS as its founder, William Paley, once was. In October, Disney's board extended 63-year-old Robert Iger's retirement date a third time. Philippe Dauman, 60, is as close to replacing Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone — who sounded near death Nov. 5 during a CBS earnings call — as an executive ever has been. Chase Carey, 60, with the division of the Murdoch holdings into newspapers and entertainment, has become at the latter company ever-more autonomous and crucial.

This is, notably — even transformationally — the first business generation in which being in one's 60s doesn't necessarily suggest retirement. In fact, each of the media chiefs looks almost preternaturally on top of his game. The builders of the great media companies were forced by age, the reach of their ambitions and attendant controversies to turn over operational control to a strictly managerial generation. These execs were supposed to create more rational, less personality-dominated businesses. Instead, in the process of building more deliberate media empires, each company has become a striking reflection of its operator's logic.

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Bewkes, rising at Time Warner after CEO Jerry Levin's hubris-addled fall and caretaker Richard Parsons' interregnum, sold off the many nonharmonious parts of the company and doubled its share price. Moonves, in addition to launching the CSI and NCIS franchises, single-handedly established broadcast's huge retransmission fees after taking control of CBS in its 2006 spinoff from Viacom. Iger bought Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm (and has been lucky to preside over ESPN's rocketing growth) and is the quiet yin to his Disney predecessor Michael Eisner's Sturm und Drang yang. Carey, while in name the COO who reports to 83-year-old Fox CEO Murdoch, has managed a sports and cable leviathan and, as well, his proprietor and his difficult family. (Carey reportedly was the strongest voice in splitting the Murdoch holdings.) Dauman, too, taking over Viacom after Redstone's temper-tantrum ouster of Tom Freston, has demonstrated singular ability to manage his 91-year-old patron; with his other hand, he has turned Viacom into the leading millennial marketing company.

Most importantly — contradicting the influential thesis of investment banker Jonathan Knee in his book The Curse of the Mogul that the long-term prices of media conglomerates inevitably lag the market — each man has seen during his tenure a market-beating rise.

It also is very clear that none of them wants to go. Why would they? Not only is running a media company like being prince of a rich nation-state — a lifestyle as well as personal-wealth bonanza, with each of the major media CEOs ranking among the most well-paid U.S. executives — but also there is a sense that television, the essence of their businesses, is poised for an ultimate golden age.

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The future comes, but each man is holding it at arm's length. Iger's best-positioned successor, Thomas Staggs, 48, is a former CFO who runs Disney's theme parks. At Time Warner, Bewkes moved CFO John Martin, 45, to run Turner Broadcasting (less an advancement than a trial by fire). At CBS, Moonves has put CFO Joseph Ianniello, 46, into the No. 2 position. CFOs, however, no matter how competent, lack programming chops — taste, style and relationships, that key media attribute. All need further seasoning. (Cautionary tale: At A+E Networks, programming star Nancy Dubuc got the No. 2 job then, at lightning speed, took the No. 1 spot from her patron, Abbe Raven, who announced her retirement Nov. 2.) At Fox and Viacom, the future involves family members — one or more of the three Murdoch children in the business, and at Viacom, Redstone's daughter, Shari, whom he variously elevates and sidelines — or some form of corporate chaos, or both. Fear of this future helps secure Carey's and Dauman's roles.

Indeed, in some sense, management of the media business is locked in place by the instability if not deluge that will mark the post-Murdoch and -Redstone years. At that point, the industry likely will be remade by new buyers and sellers. But meanwhile, the long promise of the worst of times not only failed to materialize but now feels a lot like the best of times, earning each man big bonuses and a few more years — possibly pushing the "new 65" well into their 70s.

Michael Wolff writes frequently about media and is the author of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.