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Backtalk: Eisner on Eisner

11/22/1998 7:00 PM Eastern

If you like "tell-all" books about theentertainment business, don't even bother cracking Work in Progress, by MichaelEisner, chairman of The Walt Disney Co., and co-author/journalist Tony Schwartz.

This 450-page tome is about as squeaky-clean and sanitizedas Snow White and most of the products and characters that come out of that hydra-headedmedia company.

But while it's no page-turner, plenty can be learned aboutthe inner workings of show business from this autobiographical account of Eisner'slongtime career.

It takes us through his not-so-humble beginnings, when --via the connections of his wealthy New York family -- Eisner landed his first job in thebusiness, working as a page at NBC.

The saga ends with Eisner -- now long ensconced as chairmanof Disney, after having hopped around, but always upward, from ABC to Paramount -- talkingabout future plans for his empire, including expansion via new theme parks.

On the plus side, Eisner's recollections about his brushwith mortality -- having survived emergency quadruple-bypass surgery -- and about hisclearly heartfelt grief over the tragic death in a helicopter accident of Frank Wells, hissecond-in-command at Disney, show the very personal side of an industry titan, which israrely revealed in print.

But the rest of the book is painstakingly plodding and alittle confusing. Eisner has this annoying habit of writing in a nonlinear way, with somuch flitting from past to present that it's sometimes hard to tell if Wells was dead oralive during whatever particular deal Eisner was narrating.

And for those employed in the cable business, you'll findthe book remarkably flimsy as far as your medium. It surprised me that so little space wasdevoted to cable, especially since Disney, via its acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC, hasmushroomed in that area of the entertainment business.

The book, not unexpectedly, is mostly devoted to buildingthe Disney brand. And the biggest building blocks of that brand -- which are also thelargest revenue and profit generators -- happen to be theme parks, theatricals andmerchandising.

Eisner does recall the early days of Disney Channel,heaping tons of praise on John Cooke, who came to Disney in 1985 and was charged withbreathing new life into the then-somewhat anemic pay cable channel.

Marketing executives, in particular, will enjoy readingabout how Disney Channel became the primary medium through which the company promoted itsgrowing number of other initiatives.

Eisner gives Cooke credit for reinventing the channel as abasic service, mostly because it faced growing competition from Nickelodeon, which wasavailable on basic for the masses.

About 100 pages later, Eisner picks up the cable themeagain, as he mentions how the company recruited Geraldine Laybourne, "the keyexecutive responsible for building Nickelodeon into the highest-rated children'snetwork," to head Disney/ABC Cable.

However, nowhere did Eisner address or even mentionLaybourne leaving the company shortly thereafter to create her own company, Oxygen Media.

Instead, he jumps to Laybourne's protégé, Anne Sweeney,and her role in further widening Disney Channel's audience, crediting her with the launchof Toon Disney.

ESPN, in contrast, gets much more ink, as Eisner quicklyapplied the Disney branding approach to that network, creating ESPN Zones and ESPN Storesacross the country, just as it had done for the "Disney brand."

Beyond cable, some of the more eyebrow-raising proserevolves around two prominent executive defections from Disney's ranks: Michael Ovitz,whom Eisner recruited to be his No. 2 after Wells' death; and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Eisner'sNo. 3, who bolted when he wasn't promoted at that same time.

On Ovitz, Eisner concludes near the end of the tale,"I believed that Michael brought a unique set of skills to the job. To my dismay, heproved to be a dissonant fit. Rather than relieving me of operating responsibilities,Michael became a source of added stress in my life."

What Eisner didn't mention in his book was just how much hepaid Ovitz to go away, nor that Katzenberg sued Disney after his departure from thecompany.

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