Blue Mood at Media Confab


Dick Parsons assessed his life as CEO of AOL Time Warner nicely. "Yesterday," he said (not, thankfully, sang) to a group of media investors, "all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay. Oh, I believe in yesterday."

That pretty much reflects the tone of Bear, Stearns & Co.'s annual media conference in Palm Beach, Fla., last week. Investors and corporate executives alike lamented the slackness of media stocks and the disruption in ad spending a war could cause.

"We continue to be cautiously optimistic about 2003," said Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons, "but it's not possible to see what the effects of a war on Iraq will be."

Parsons offered no new information but acknowledged that the constant shuffling of management both at the top of the company and in its business units is unsettling to investors. "We had to get the right team on the field, people who agreed with my view of how we create value," he explained.

On TV/newspaper crossownership, Fitz-Simons said he doesn't expect the relaxation of federal regulations to spark a deal frenzy. Only companies that, like Tribune, already have sizable holding in both newspapers and broadcast TV are likely to bite, he said: "I think you need to have scale on both sides." But, even if the rules do melt as expected, Tribune's top priority is acquiring stations in top-30 markets.

Liberty Media Executive Vice President Gary Howard acknowledged that the company is considering buying control of DirecTV with or without earlier partner News Corp. With General Motors now interested in selling off only part of DirecTV parent Hughes Electronics, there's no need for News Corp. and Liberty to team up. "If two guys buy 20% and only have 10% each, I'm not sure we're interested in that," Howard said.

But Liberty will play only if News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch passes on the deal. Said Howard, "I don't think you'll see a bidding contest, us against Rupert."