Disney empire's next ruler

Iger, described as more deliberative, much less abrasive, will succeed Eisner at midnight

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September 30, 2005|By KIM CHRISTENSEN | KIM CHRISTENSEN,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- During his five years as No. 2 to Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Officer Michael D. Eisner, Robert A. Iger has earned a reputation as a hard worker, a quick study and, well, a pretty buttoned-down guy.

Steven Bochco came to know another, looser Iger in the early 1990s, when the prolific television producer sat down with the then-head of ABC to map out NYPD Blue, the gritty cop show that would feature, among other things, its stars' naked derrieres.

"I remember sitting in Bob's office, just the two of us, with a pad and a pencil, drawing dirty pictures like a couple of sixth-graders," the producer recalled.

Bochco laughs at the memory of using those sessions "to decide what was acceptable and what wasn't."

But he is quick to credit Iger for developing a clear set of standards for the series, which ran for 12 years beginning in 1993, and for standing by the show when the religious right assailed it for its racy themes.

Bochco and others say it is this Iger - deliberate and steadfast - who will prove effective when he officially succeeds Eisner at midnight.

In a sense, Iger is the flip side of Eisner, who had little compunction about roiling the corporate waters and seeking the spotlight. Iger is known for being more collegial than combative, a man who hopes to create a calmer environment in a company that has been through much upheaval in recent years.

For all practical purposes, Iger, 54, already has put his mark on Disney. Soon after the board picked him in March, Eisner handed over the reins to the entertainment empire, whose theme parks, movies, television networks and consumer products generate more than $30 billion a year. So far, he's drawn good reviews from company insiders, investors and analysts.

In keeping with Hollywood's tradition of never kick 'em while they're up, public criticism of Iger is hard to come by.

Privately, however, some who have worked with Iger question whether he has the creative chops to replace Eisner, who since 1984 has guided Disney's revenue growth from $1.5 billion a year to more than 20 times that much.

While they rate Iger high on hard work and likability, they are less enthusiastic about his prospects as CEO.

One former associate described Iger as more technocrat than visionary. Another questioned whether his "great temperament and people skills" would translate to creative leadership.

Iger declined requests for an interview and had little to say to reporters Tuesday at a Hollywood Radio and Television Society luncheon for Eisner in Beverly Hills.

"I have to admit I'm excited about this opportunity and deeply appreciative to have that," he said then.

Four years after moving to Disney with ABC, Iger became Eisner's second-in-command as president in 2000. In a rough and tumble five years since, the company has endured a shareholder revolt led by Roy E. Disney and Stanley P. Gold; survived a hostile takeover bid by Comcast Corp.; and been dragged through the embarrassing details of a lawsuit over Eisner's hiring and firing of Michael Ovitz, Iger's predecessor as president.

Looking ahead, Iger has said he will concentrate on expanding Disney's international business and exploiting new technologies to promote the company's brands. He also has said he will give a hard look to the money the company spends on its film operations.

One of Iger's biggest hurdles, however, will be to distinguish himself from Eisner.

Producer Brian Grazer said Iger had the benefit of observing "the aggressively creative" Eisner up close - for good and bad - and probably will use those observations to shape himself as a leader.

Grazer, who has known Iger for 15 years, disputes the notion that he lacks creativity and says his penchant for privacy is sometimes misinterpreted. Iger has never been a guy to show up at every party, Grazer said, and he doesn't expect that to change.

"He's just the worker," Grazer said. "He's always been the worker. Now he's the worker and the CEO."

Kim Christensen writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this article

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