Eisner to Disney: I’m Out Sept. 30, 2006

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After fighting off a campaign engineered by a member of the Disney family to force his ouster earlier this year, The Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner has thrown in the towel, announcing that he’ll retire when his contract expires in 2006.

“I plan to retire from my role as chief executive officer of the company upon the conclusion of the term of my employment agreement on Sept. 30, 2006,” Eisner wrote in a letter to Disney’s board of directors that was also filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“Until then, I shall continue to exert every effort to help the company achieve our goals, to assist the board in selecting the new chief executive officer and to make the transition expeditious, efficient and smooth and easy,” he added.

Eisner’s announcement has set the speculation wheels in motion as to his successor. Although Eisner has said publicly that he would like current Disney president Bob Iger to replace him -- and Iger has been making the rounds touting his past accomplishments -- some observers feel that he is too closely tied to the ABC Television Network’s failure to recapture its No. 1 position among the “Big Four.”

Other possible candidates to fill the CEO spot include former Disney executives eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman and Gap Inc. CEO Paul Pressler.

Other media honchos on the short list include News Corp. president and chief operating officer Peter Chernin, Comcast Corp. COO Steve Burke and Jeff Bewkes, chairman of Time Warner Inc.’s entertainment and networks group.

Sanford Bernstein & Co. media analyst Tom Wolzien called Eisner’s announcement a surprise and added in a research note that reports that Disney will conduct a broad and thorough search for a CEO indicate that Iger is not a lock for the job.

Wolzien added other media heavyweights like Viacom Inc. co-COO Les Moonves, former The Coca-Cola Co. and Time Warner executive Steve Heyer and NBC Universal executives Randy Falco and Jeff Zucker to the short list.

Disney also could dip into its own corporate ranks, Wolzien continued, naming Disney Media Networks co-chairman George Bodenheimer and Consumer Products chairman Andy Mooney as possible candidates.

Eisner led a practically charmed life in the early years of his tenure, as Disney stock rose rapidly and its studios continued to churn out hits.

But as the stock began to slide, the film studios released a series of box-office failures and ABC slid to the No. 3 spot, investors began to question Eisner’s leadership.

That reached a head earlier this year, when Comcast launched an unsolicited takeover bid for the company -- which it dropped in April -- and Roy Disney, former board member and nephew of founder Walt Disney, launched a campaign to oust Eisner.

Eisner fought back with his usual tenacity, but he agreed at the company’s annual shareholders meeting in March to relinquish his chairman’s title to board member George Mitchell.

While Eisner survived that campaign, he received what was considered to be one of the largest no-confidence votes in U.S. corporate history when 45% of shareholders withheld their votes for his re-election to the board.

In recent months, however, the furor appeared to have died down, as Disney started to hit the aggressive growth targets Eisner had set -- 50% earnings growth for fiscal-year 2004 -- and the company’s stock price began to rise.

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