Editor’s Note: Bill Carter, a media analyst for CNN, covered the television industry for The New York Times for 25 years. He has written four books on TV, including “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night” and “The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Bob Iger’s return to The Walt Disney Company immediately inspired two knee-jerk comparisons on social media.
Two: Elon Musk’s move to take over Twitter and begin imposing his idiosyncratic (to use a generous word) personal vision on a worldwide franchise important to hundreds of millions of consumers.
Iger resumed his Disney career late Sunday with the surprise announcement that the board had terminated Iger’s successor, Bob Chapek, and was bringing back its longtime champion, its leader of 15 years who, with inspired moves such as acquiring Marvel, Pixar and the “Star Wars” franchise, had fashioned a legend for habitual success.
That does sound a bit like Brady’s resume, and if sports metaphors are your thing, Iger playing CEO like a quarterback certainly works – many long passes for touchdowns.
The Musk comparison is really a contrast, of course, because Iger as a leader is famously controlled, subdued, respectful of a range of opinions, interested in the creative ideas of others, generally progressive in his politics and not over-endowed with hubris; aka: the opposite of Musk.
Few executives have had either the resume, or the cultural closeness to a company they did not found, that Iger had with Disney. So if anyone was truly surprised, they were taking delusion pills – and they don’t really know Iger.
I’m not going to say that I know him in any sort of profound way either, but I have had a long association with him as a reporter. I was new to covering the TV business for The New York Times when I wrote up ABC’s announcement in March 1989 that the network had named Iger, who had spent most of his career there in the sports division, as president of the entertainment division. (Disney acquired ABC six years later.)
In the article, I noted company executives’ acknowledgement that selecting someone with no experience with the insular kingdom of Hollywood was unorthodox. Iger didn’t run from that assessment, telling me in a phone interview, “Obviously I’m a stranger to this world.”
John Sias, then-president of ABC, seemed to acknowledge that Iger’s talents lay elsewhere, with strengths in his “ability in human relations” and being a “thoughtful individual.”
As it turns out, that was apparently the ideal skill set to ignite one of the most successful runs in American business history.
Later, when Iger served a five-year tenure as chief operating officer to a more mercurial Disney CEO, Michael Eisner, he was again the target of some sniping – off the record – for being something of a toady to Eisner. And when he became CEO of Disney in 2005, there was more off-the-record skepticism: Wasn’t Iger too tied to Eisner to truly navigate Disney through the maelstrom of the rapidly evolving entertainment business?
Some ABC executives I knew well who were hugely doubtful when Iger took over were admitting to me less than a year later how wrong they were.
Iger’s talents clearly did include being good at “human relations.” Early on he proved especially adept at managing relationships with the “talent” – as in stars.
Unlike other entertainment executives I have encountered, many of whom emphasized business-school management strategies, Iger put enormous faith in backing creative people. They made the company’s product, after all.
But the other skill mentioned when he got his big promotion at ABC in the late 1980s – being a “thoughtful individual” – turned out to be even more consequential. Iger was constantly thinking, deeply, about the future of entertainment and Disney’s role in it. He was at the most storied studio in Hollywood, often the one most hidebound because of its tradition of “family entertainment.” Iger never believed in the status quo.
He was always sucking up new information, sensing tectonic shifts. Any conversation with him wove its way around to finding ways to stay ahead of the curve. He clearly built much of his strategy around the conviction that brands were critical to whatever form the delivery of entertainment would take.
“Brand” was the essence of Disney, a company still selling millions of mouse ears because its founder co-created a character in 1928. So Iger believed brands such as ESPN, Pixar, “Star Wars” and Marvel would fuel the fires of audience interest well into the future, no matter how people accessed them.
Iger raised Disney to powerhouse status with those acquisitions while also managing assets all over the map, from cruise ships to Broadway musicals to theme parks. And right before he finally decided he would actually step away from the mega-brand he’d expanded, he pushed a giant pile of chips on the bet that streaming was the future, which drove the company’s launch of Disney+.
Undoubtedly, Iger thought that positioned the company spectacularly. It clearly didn’t look that way to him in recent months as the ship started taking on water under Chapek.
Iger didn’t stop being “thoughtful.” He seems to have thought he knew better how to fix things, how to quarterback things – again.
Questioning whether he has the ability to do it has been a losing bet for a long time.