Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

One step ahead of the storm

By Kate Bulkley

Royal Television Society


ABC’s fortunes have dominated Bob Iger’s career – and turning the network around is key to his and Disney’s future, says Kate Bulkley

There’s something about Bob Iger. He’s smart, handsome, well liked within the TV industry and he has a reputation as a fine team-builder – after all, he’s not president and COO of The Walt Disney Company for nothing.

The 53-year-old, cool-under-fire ex-TV weatherman from New York has spent all his 30 years in US television at ABC with increasing levels of responsibility – including the last nine years as a very senior executive within Walt Disney itself. In addition, he’s credited for adding some stability to the Mouse House as it navigates through choppy waters.

Yet for all the hours of sunshine Iger’s career has enjoyed, the storm clouds are gathering. Despite his reasonableness and his reputed low-key approach to management, continued trouble at the ABC network is causing severe weather warnings. And that’s not all.

Iger is the Number 2 to Michael Eisner, a man himself under growing pressure. Some shareholders led by disgruntled, ex-company director Roy Disney (nephew of Walt) want Eisner removed; earlier this year US cable giant Comcast made an unsolicited (and eventually unsuccessful) bid for Disney; and even Michael Moore has stirred up trouble because of wrangling over distribution by Disney’s Miramax movie unit of his Farenheit 9/11 documentary.

No medal for fourth place…

But being a Number 2 hasn’t sheltered the ambitious Iger from criticism. In the nine years as Disney’s near-big chief, Iger has failed to find the right formula to lift his beloved ABC network out of its current fourth-place spot behind NBC, CBS and Fox in the US ratings. Apart from a boost from Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? in the 1999-2000 season, ABC has been in a downward ratings spiral almost since Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995.

While it is Eisner who is looking most embattled by the shareholder revolt and Comcast’s unwelcome overtures, it’s Iger’s ABC that is the black hole on the balance sheet.

That alone might prevent Iger from slipping into Eisner’s chair when his boss is expected to either retire or be pushed out of Disney when his current contract expires in September 2006.

“Bob’s reputation has been tarnished by the problems at ABC,” says a longtime US TV executive who knows Iger well. “Some people say it’s all Eisner’s fault because he micromanages and that’s affected what Iger can and cannot do, but it’s Iger that has had direct responsibility for ABC.“

… And no comfy chair at head office

Iger may be a fall guy for Eisner and critics say his Number 2 job might end up being the height of his executive career. Luckily, though, Iger has a sense of humour. In March this year at a Bear Sterns investor conference in Florida, he was candid about the speculation regarding his place in the Disney succession.

“It [the Number 2 chair] hurts a little bit sometimes. But I’m a big boy. It goes with the territory,” reported Variety. “You have to deliver as a management team, and if we deliver then I think my chances improve dramatically. And if we don’t, I think I shouldn’t get the chance.”

“I do have an alternative,” he went on with a smile, referring to his former job as a weatherman in New York. “It’s nice to have other skills to fall back on.”

Growing up in a middle-class home in Long Island, New York, Iger was interested in TV from an early age and majored in broadcasting at Ithaca College, graduating with a distinction; today he is a trustee of the college.

Compiling his extensive skills in US television started – extraordinarily – with an entry-level job as a studio supervisor at ABC in New York in 1974. A move to ABC Sports, where Iger worked under the legendary programmer Roone Arledge, led to his rise through the ranks to become vice-president for programming (responsible for all scheduling and programme acquisitions) for the unit in 1987.

A year later, now in his mid-30s, he moved into network television entertainment as executive vice-president of ABC Television Network and, in 1989, headed west to Los Angeles to become president of ABC Entertainment.

Welcome to the Mouse House

By the time Disney moved in to gobble up the network’s parent, Capital Cities/ABC, Iger was six months away from taking the Number 1 job there. He had actually been named as president and COO in 1994. But in 1995 – the year of his marriage to second wife, the glamorous news anchor Willow Bay – his boss Tom Murphy did the deal with Eisner and sold Cap Cities to Disney.

Talking about the Disney purchase several years later Iger told Fortune magazine: “It probably wasn’t the greatest thing in the world for me, but it was the right thing for [Capital Cities/ABC] shareholders.”

With the ultra-tough, micro-managing Eisner suddenly as his boss, Iger had to knuckle down and adapt to a different corporate culture. Yet as a man nine years younger than his Number 1 and with much more TV experience under his belt than Eisner, Iger was certainly seen as Eisner’s natural successor.

Ironically, Iger had brought a new shine to ABC prior to the Disney takeover. He backed a thrusting young writer/producer called Steve Bochco with the groundbreaking NYPD Blue. The channel won the primetime ratings race for its 18- to 49-year-old demographic three times in his four years in charge of the network.

But following the Disney acquisition, and Iger having already moved away from his hands-on role three years earlier, ABC’s golden years were over. Apart from a brief Millionaire-driven revival in 1999-2000, Iger’s ABC has failed to keep pace with his network rivals.

Some of the worst programming decisions have been very high-profile ones. ABC turned down the hugely successful CSI franchise and, more recently, The Apprentice with Donald Trump, which shored up NBC last autumn.

Teams of ABC execs have come and gone (the latest shake-out was in April). Critics have had a field day accusing ABC of over-reliance on shows from its inhouse studio, Touchstone, ever-changing business models and a top-heavy management structure that has blocked good decision making. All in all, ABC needs a couple of hits.

ABC casts a long shadow

In a conference call with analysts and the press in June, Iger reiterated his cautious belief that ABC can return to profitability by 2005 provided ratings are flat or higher in the coming all-important autumn season.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Disney organisation is performing quite well and Iger can take some of the credit for that. As COO his responsibilities at Disney go well beyond ABC.

They include overseeing everything from the Disneyland theme parks, the film studio, sports network ESPN and the Disney entertainment cable channels in the US and around the world, not forgetting consumer products, the Disney-branded stores, a slew of TV and radio stations in the US plus an internet group.

Through all this Iger is the man seen by many observers as the more nuts and bolts guy leaving the big strategic picture to Eisner.

Iger can also put his diplomatic hat on when required. Disney’s recent fall-out with Pixar over profit sharing on co-productions like the blockbuster movie Finding Nemo is widely seen as a result of Eisner’s heavy-handedness.

Iger said recently that despite the high-profile falling out between the two companies, Disney and Pixar were back talking about sequels, starting with a third Toy Story.

So Iger the Number 2 may never be Iger the Number 1. It would be a shame. A man with so many of the right TV credentials missed the big seat once and it could well happen again a decade later.

Indeed, his weatherman background could come in handy. He’s weathered a storm or two, but if the roof blows off the Mouse House some time soon, and before ABC recovers, then he’s likely to go with it.


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