Commentary: It Ain't Nothing But A Mogul Thing

Written By Rick Ellis, Wednesday, July 16th, 2003

Of all the people in the Bush Administration, perhaps no one was of more interest to the public last week than CIA Director George Tenet. As the center of a whirlwind of controversy over claims that the agency had made mistakenly allowed President Bush to assert Iraq had attempted to buy uranium from Niger, Tenet was being sought by everyone from Dateline to Senate Intelligence Subcommittee. He was talking last week, but it wasn't to the public. He was in Sun Valley, Idaho, giving a private intelligence briefing to participants of the private Allen and Company Media conference.

The annual gathering includes nearly every major player of the world's media, technology and entertainment industries, and it's a reminder of just how insular, isolated and powerful the world's media owners are from the billions who consume their products. Organized by investment banker Herbert Allen, the get-together is a summer camp for Citizen Kane's, a place where the rich and powerful are able to meet over picnic lunches and fishing streams as they help determine what you'll be watching for the next few years.

Participants this year included media giants such as Sumner Redstone (Viacom), John Malone (Liberty Media), Richard Parsons (AOL/Time Warner), Brian Roberts (Comcast), Barry Diller (former Vivendi/Universal entertainment head), Les Moonves (CBS), Peter Chernin (News Corp.), TV entrepreneur Haim Saban, Michael Eisner (Disney) and Howard Stringer (Sony). Technology is well represented as well, with both Microsoft's Bill Gates and Intel's joining in. Former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard was there, both as an executive of the private investment firm The Carlyle Group and a director of The New York Times Company.

Wall Street is there in force, with both uber-investor Warren Buffett and fund manager Mario J. Gabelli (a major shareholder in Cablevision) attending.

So what goes on during this week-long mogul love-fest? Sometimes, big deals are finalized (this is, after all, where Disney put together the deal to acquire ABC). But it's also a chance for these leaders of industry to get reacquainted in less stressful surroundings. As Bill Kennard recently told the NY Times, "As the industry consolidates, you have fewer and fewer owners, and each of the owners have more reason to do business with each other, so in a place like this, where they are all here together, a lot of business gets done."

While the press does hover outside the meetings, a bevy of security guards keep them away from the participants, except for some heavily controlled photo shoots and interviews. Much of what happens during the meetings is secret, although some details do leak out.

One highlight of this year's gathering was a presentation by Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr., who reportedly stunned the moguls with his tales of the harsh frugality of the mammoth retailer. The media executives--many of them accustomed to limos and private jets--were floored by Walmart's culture of saving money. He told them that he regularly drives his own compact car, and when traveling, he frequently shared a Days Inn hotel room with a fellow Walmart executive.

In a sense, their surprise at that frugality is a reflection of their distance from most of their customers. Like movie studio moguls of old, these media and technology heads live in a world much different than one any of us can comprehend. The Sumner Redstone's of the world aren't shy about their desire to wring every last dollar out of their companies--whether it means slashing staff, cutting budgets or consolidating the media industry in an effort to reduce overhead. Yet they are nearly all Billionaires, and even the recent economic slump hasn't appeared to hit their pocketbooks.

But these powerful people (almost exclusively old white men) have an enormous influence on our culture and media. They own the vast majority of the news outlets, cable channels, networks, newspapers and so many of the other things which make our modern society possible. Even some of these mighty men admit that perhaps the media consolidation has gone too far, that too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few people. But their concern is little more than cheap talk.

While someone such as Barry Diller tells the press that he worries about media consolidation, he simultaneously is working to gain control of the Vivendi/Universal Entertainment assets. Apparently with the plan of retaining the movie studio and theme parks, while spinning off the cable channels to Viacom (a company which already owns everything from MTV to TNN). It's almost as if Diller is asking for someone to save him from his own greed.

I am not often depressed, but it's hard not to be disheartened when I think about the power wielded by this small group of men. I can work hard all my life, and build myself a nice little media business. But these guys could crush me in an instant. I'm not sure if it's more depressing to think that they could squash me if they wanted to, or that I can never be big enough to make it worth their while.