The Contender

Times Staff Writer

A few weeks back, a colleague gave Robert Iger a bottle of fine red wine to celebrate his 30 years as an executive with ABC and its parent, Walt Disney Co. Although appreciative, Iger would prefer a more substantial gesture of gratitude: Michael Eisner’s job.

Iger, who is second in command at Disney, has long been dismissed as a top-tier contender to succeed Eisner as chief executive. Observers inside and outside the company have described him as supremely competent but not the kind of dynamic leader needed to guide the Disney empire.

Iger’s heard enough.

“I don’t care whether I’m described as lead candidate or anything like that,” he said in an interview. “I have a right to be taken seriously. I feel I know the company well. I have the knowledge.... There comes a time when it’s appropriate to say, ‘Hey, this is a job I’m interested in.’ ”


In recent months, Iger has made that case in meetings with investors and in private conversations with Disney executives as pressure has mounted on the company’s board to identify candidates to succeed Eisner, whose contract expires in 2006. It is unclear whether he will seek an extension -- or whether the board would give him one.

Eisner was among those who in the past didn’t view Iger as a natural fit for Disney’s top job.

In a 1996 memo to directors, Eisner said that if he was “hit by a truck,” he might suggest Iger as a replacement. “He will not get the company into trouble,” Eisner wrote. “He is not an enlightened or brilliantly creative man, but with a strong board he absolutely could do the job.”

In an interview last week, however, Eisner was far more supportive, suggesting that his relationship with the Disney president has evolved through the years. He said he had told board members that Iger “would be an excellent guardian of the Disney assets” and now had become his “preferred choice.”


“There’s nobody,” Eisner said, “who has a better education and training to do that job.”

Not known as a self-promoter, Iger insists he’s not campaigning for the CEO job. But he is quick to remind investors and company insiders of his successes, including the impressive growth of the Disney Channel under his stewardship, the emergence of ESPN as global cash cow and the turnaround of the company’s consumer products unit.

But then there’s ABC. The once top-ranked network, over which Iger has responsibility, has languished in fourth place because of a series of widely chronicled and dissected mistakes.

Iger believes that the emphasis on ABC’s troubles has unfairly overshadowed his triumphs.


“I wanted desperately to fix the network ... because it was so visible and it was so much a part of my background,” Iger said. “But people thought that was the only thing I was doing, which is absurd.”

Absurd or not, ABC’s performance is once again front and center for Iger. This month the network will launch its new fall lineup. ABC executives, including Iger, have high hopes for several dramas that already have received critical praise. Some analysts say the success or failure of the new season could influence Iger’s ascent to the Disney throne.

Among those who will be watching are the Disney directors. They are scheduled to meet this month, and the topic of succession is high on the agenda.

“Surely the psychology and impression among investors is that if ABC doesn’t turn around, it’s going to be laid at his doorstep,” media analyst Harold Vogel said. “How much support he can get from the board and from shareholders will hinge on the performance of ABC.”


That Iger now is seen as a serious candidate is, in itself, a victory of sorts for the 53-year-old executive, whose own contract expires next September. For the last few years, speculation about potential successors to Eisner has focused on News Corp.'s Peter Chernin, Time Warner Inc.'s Jeff Bewkes and Yahoo Inc.'s Terry Semel. Iger was scarcely mentioned.

In a sense, he can thank the controversies surrounding Eisner’s management of Disney for his rise into the pack. Iger repeatedly has been pushed into the hot spotlight to defend his boss and the company to investors and reporters. By all accounts, he has met the challenge.

That was especially true when shareholders delivered a 45% no-confidence vote for Eisner’s reelection to the board in March. Iger was dispatched to try to calm the waters.

One of Iger’s appearances came at an investor conference presented by Bear Stearns just days after the vote that rocked Eisner and forced the board to strip him of his chairmanship title. The questions were tough, and Iger fielded them cleanly, according to participants.


“He was very eloquent and poised,” said Anthony Valencia, a media and entertainment analyst with TCW Group Inc. “A lot of people thought maybe he has been overlooked.”

Eisner also has developed a deeper appreciation for Iger, especially as the two men have battled their critics, most notably former directors Roy E. Disney and Stanley P. Gold, who led the shareholder revolt.

“We are clearly now much more partners than in the past,” Eisner said.

Iger, who once complained to colleagues about being taken for granted by Eisner, agreed that the relationship has “gotten a lot better.”


“We divide and conquer well,” Iger said, “but we also don’t let anybody divide and conquer us.”

The two executives were thrown together in 1996 when Disney acquired Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion. At the time, Iger was chief operating officer of Capital Cities and was being groomed as the next CEO. His background was in television.

He had majored in broadcasting at Ithaca College in upstate New York, cutting his teeth as a television weatherman and reporter before joining ABC in 1974. He soon landed in the network’s sports division. Long known for his ability to manage up, he impressed bosses with a strong work ethic and affable style. He quickly rose through the ranks.

In 1989, Iger was named head of ABC Entertainment, where he boosted the network’s ratings with such hits as “Home Improvement” and “NYPD Blue.” He also earned a reputation as a risk taker, championing such offbeat shows as director David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.” Within four years, Iger was the network president.


“You have to give him credit for how we did,” said Tom Murphy, who was chief executive of Capital Cities/ABC when it was acquired by Disney. “He jumped every hurdle.”

Then the network stumbled.

Among the most notable missteps was a decision by ABC executives to air the hit show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” as many as four times a week, burning out audiences and failing to invest its profit in new shows that could have capitalized on the success of “Millionaire.” The network also rejected programs that became huge hits on other networks, including “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” on Viacom Inc.-owned CBS and “The Apprentice” on NBC, a unit of General Electric Co.

As ABC’s ratings and revenue slumped, much of the blame was directed at Iger, who headed ABC’s operations, along with Disney’s international businesses, before being promoted to his current job in 2000. Confronted with ABC’s embarrassing slide, Iger vowed two years ago to rebuild the network. But critics say he acted too late, without an effective strategy.


Although Iger was drawing flak for ABC, several senior Disney executives said he was succeeding elsewhere with little acclaim.

Anne Sweeney, who oversees ABC and various Disney cable assets, said Iger was her strongest advocate in backing new programming for the Disney Channel, including such hits as “Lizzie McGuire.”

“He cleared a path for me,” Sweeney said, adding that Iger also pushed for the overseas expansion of the highly profitable channel, now aired in 22 countries.

Disney’s consumer products chief, Andy Mooney, credits Iger with helping revitalize sales of the company’s merchandise, sometimes bucking powerful traditionalists in the company. “Bob was willing to take the risk,” Mooney said.


For his part, Iger understands he’s no shoo-in for the job held for two decades by Eisner, whose strong personality has dominated the entertainment giant’s public image. Iger knows that with an iconic company like Disney, in which every move is scrutinized by its legions of fans and detractors, anything can happen.

But he at least wants to be a contender.

“I’m enough of a realist to know that this is a decision that the board of directors is going to make,” Iger said. “And they are going to base that on my performance.”