Disney's embattled former chairman put an end to the speculation about his future at the company last week by announcing, far in advance, that he will leave in two years. It's about time.
Sept. 30, 2006, will mark the end of Michael Eisner's tenure atop the company he helped rebuild from an aging animation giant to a new-media colossus. That includes the spectacular ESPN brands. And it includes problems like the Family Channel, for which Disney foolishly overspent. Eisner is a victim of his own success … and failure.
He turned the company into a money machine but 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, and the attack was led by Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, and another dissident ex-director Stanley Gold, who argue that Eisner, a grown man who always wears a Mickey Mouse tie, has mismanaged the brand.
Many creative types complain that Eisner created a Disney culture of overlapping, overwhelming bureaucracy that led to creative paralysis.
But remember Disney before him, in 1984. If you asked Disney executives back then how they would treat their CEO in two decades if the company were then 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 never went anywhere. Most of all, those in the TV business still shudder at the Who Wants To Over-saturate a Millionaire programming debacle that many insiders blame Eisner for creating by refusing to yank the show before it drowned ABC in red ink.
Whether new programming chief Steve McPherson can get ABC out of the trough will go a long way to helping Eisner leave on top and possibly aid Eisner's second in command, Robert Iger, to ascend to the top job. It's a tall order for McPherson, but Hollywood has been talking up ABC's schedule, so there is hope. And indeed, as recent financial results revealed, Eisner can claim Disney is on its way to a revival in other areas, including its theme parks. There's another irony: News of Eisner's planned departure broke on Sept. 10, nearly three years to the day since the terrorist madness turned us into a nation of fearful fliers and made the lines at Disney World and Disneyland so much shorter.
Disney's problems were mainly of Eisner's making, but he also spent more time at the top of Space Mountain than the bottom. There's talk that he may use these two years to reinvent himself and emerge again as chairman, the title the Disney board took from him in March. We hope that's not true. His legacy is mixed, but Disney is far more powerful than it was before he was there. As Mickey would say, he put on a rootin', tootin' show.