Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger wasted little time setting the tone for this year’s Allen & Co. conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Getting into his rental car after checking in at the Sun Valley Resort here, Iger held court with the media for a few minutes and declared: “People are going to pay [for] content. . . . We’re not worried about monetizing content.” Of course, Disney’s ABC network started making some of its content available free on the video website Hulu at the same time it is joining News Corp. and NBC Universal as a co-owner.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for another media executive to pop up and offer a contradiction. Blake Krikorian, the co-founder of Slingbox, the device that enables people to watch their home TV from anywhere, said the industry was “trying to put the genie back in the bottle.” Another naysayer was former AOL executive Ted Leonsis, who thought anyone trying to get consumers to pay for content online would be disappointed.
The Allen & Co. conference, which is expected to draw more than 260 executives from the world’s old and new media, politics, sports and government kicked off Tuesday with a big welcome dinner. The real lifting begins today, when there will be panels featuring Iger, Liberty Media Chairman John Malone and IAC Chief Executive Barry Diller discussing the digital future. On Thursday, Sony Chief Executive Howard Stringer and General Electric Co. Chief Executive Jeff Immelt will talk about the global economic downturn. Also Thursday, Google’s Larry Page will appear on an Internet panel moderated by ABC News’ Willow Bay, who is also the wife of Disney’s Iger.
Allen & Co. also likes to bring in special guests. This year, basketball star LeBron James, who already has a relationship with the investment bank, is expected to make an appearance. On Wednesday there was buzz that Gen. David Petraeus would be popping in.
Moguls are welcomed like royalty at Friedman Memorial Airport by a team of Allen & Co. greeters in green shirts and shorts. A British woman, Andy Kellog, runs the team and warns those renting cars not to speed. “The cops are there,” she says sternly.
Already there has been an “incident” here: Universal Studios President Ron Meyer made off with BET founder Bob Johnson’s rental car. Meyer realized about halfway around the circle of the lodge that he was in the wrong car and promptly returned.
Many executives waver between schmoozing with the media and playing coy. Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin was all smiles at the front desk while asking for an alarm clock to be put into his room but waved off questions about how the conference might play out. Sony’s Stringer said questions about Michael Jackson’s record sales were “ghoulish,” although what will happen to the company’s music publishing partnership with Jackson is on his mind but ultimately is “up to the lawyers.”
Krikorian, the Slingbox founder who was happy to riff on free Internet content, quieted down when asked about his own future. He is rumored to be a candidate to take Chase Carey’s job running DirecTV. Krikorian was one of the more visible executives Tuesday in his tan shorts, blue shirt and cool shades, cruising the grounds with his wife on a bike. He wouldn’t comment on any talks with the satellite broadcaster but joked that he wasn’t too keen on trying to replicate Carey’s legendary mustache if he were to follow him.
Viacom Chief Executive Philippe Dauman also looked too cool for the room with his shades and tight pants. Meg Whitman, the former EBay chief executive who has been flirting with a run for governor, declined to comment on that race and later went for a jog along the grounds.
Former super agent Michael Ovitz is also here, and he joked that “things must be slow if you’re waiting to talk to me.” He did share that he does not think the merger of William Morris Agency and Endeavor will be the last marriage between Hollywood agencies.
Spouses are also here. Elizabeth Wiatt, wife of William Morris Chairman Jim Wiatt, was busy putting her daughter on a bike for a midafternoon ride.
The media are here in full force as well. Reporters gather outside, mostly trying to figure out who’s who, and have already dubbed themselves the “bizzerazzi.”
Most are grateful they weren’t at Staples Center. Allen & Co. security is ever present, keeping an invisible line between the photographers and reporters and the attendees.
If one is thirsty, there is plenty of Coca-Cola around. Allen & Co. has long ties to the soft drink king, and there are trucks and coolers all over the place here. Good luck finding a Pepsi.