Iger to Top Mouse House


The Walt Disney Co. board Sunday unamimously elected former ABC Group chairman and current Disney president and chief operating officer Robert Iger to succeed embattled CEO Michael Eisner Sept. 30.

Eisner announced back in September 2004 that he would exit in two years, when his contract ran out, but the board, under pressure to find a replacement before then, started the search within a couple of weeks, with Iger on everybody's short list.

Eisner used to be both chairman and CEO, but the jobs were split up last year in the wake of a power play that saw the ouster from the board of two former top executives, including one named Disney, who fought back by rallying shareholders and launching a Web site to try and dethrone Eisner.

George Mitchell was eventualy named chairman, with Eisner retaining the CEO title.

The Disney board started looking for a successor Sept. 21, 2004, following Eisner's announcement that he would be stepping down.

Roy Disney (Walt's nephew) and Stanley Gold lost a battle with Eisner over the direction of the company and since leaving in December 2003--Disney was effectively ousted and Gold quit--have led a long and bitter campaign to oust Eisner.

Back in March 2004, they were instrumental in getting 43% of Disney shareholders to withhold their vote to re-elect Eisner as chairman and CEO, which led to the company splitting off the chairman title and giving it to Mitchell.

While they were taking credit Sunday for getting Eisner out early, saying "our efforts to remove Michael Eisner as CEO of the Walt Disney Company have finally succeeded," Gold and Disney were not reveling in that success.

Instead they lamented the fact that the board had not picked an outside candidate, nor they argued, looked particularly hard for one. "The selection of Bob Iger is yet another example of this Board's breach of faith," they said in a statement. "Shareholders should seriously consider replacing this board and starting anew."

Back when he was starting anew in 1984, Eisner turned the Disney company into a money machine, but eventually became the victim of ever-rising shareholder expectations.
Disney had become so much the Mouse House that Eisner rebuilt that, when its flaws became magnified by bad decisions and worse luck, the blame began accruing where the credit had always been deposited.

When future performance didn't quite meet past results, the blood was in the water.

In 1984, if you asked Disney executives how they would treat their CEO in two decades if the company--then worth about $2 billion--were worth almost $60 billion, we'll wager they would have handed him the keys to the Magic Kingdom in perpetuity.

This, of course, is the real world. For all its massive worth, the Mouse House has become a house divided, thanks to giant missteps. Bringing in super-agent Michael Ovitz as president, then firing him a year later—with a $140 million parachute—made Eisner seem much more like the sorcerer's apprentice than Merlin. Go.com bled money.

Most of all, those in the TV business still shudder at the "Who Wants To Over-saturate a Millionaire" programming strategy that ABC is only now recovering from with shows like Desperate Housewives and Lost.

But Iger has not been imune from criticism. Some station group heads back in 2002 blamed Bob Iger for the sorry state of prime time. "For five years, he's been saying that his top priority is to fix ABC," said one station-group head at the time. "I can't believe how many chances he's had to say that without actually doing it."

Iger started with ABC in 1974 as a studio supervisor. He worked in sports and moved up in the network entertainment ranks before being named ABC TV president in 1993.

Iger joined Disney in 1996 when it bought Capital Cities/ABC, where Iger was  president and COO.

Eisner said in a letter to the board Sunday that he will remain a member of the board until 2006, but will not ask to be renominated and will not make a run for the chairmanship of the company after Mitchell retires.

"I'm ready to move on and climb new mountains, while always being available to help Disney in any way I can," asid Eisner in the letter. "Beginning October 1, I expect to clean off my hiking boots, re-stock my Mickey Mouse backpack and start surveying some of the other peaks that are on the horizon."

Said Iger of the horizon ahead: "It is truly an honor to be entrusted with the responsibility of guiding this great company that occupies such an important place in the hearts and minds of millions the world over toward a very bright future."