As moguls arrive in Sun Valley, politics overshadows deals

By Jing Cao

Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. Photo / David Paul Morris
Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger, Ben Sherwood, co-chairman of Disney Media Networks. Photo / David Paul Morris

The titans of media and technology are back in Sun Valley, Idaho, for their annual summit to plot the future of their industries, but it seems like world politics and the economy are what everyone really wants to talk about.

Take David Zaslav, whose Discovery Communications has made big bets on TV rights for European sports. Holding court with reporters Tuesday, he focused as much on the continent's poor-performing economy as he did the changing media landscape.

Western Europe, excluding Britain, has been in a recession for the past 10 years, said Zaslav, 56, citing the lack of wage growth and high unemployment. The situation in Europe right now is a "recipe for some real challenges."

"It doesn't look right now like it's going to get a lot better," he said after arriving in Sun Valley, where the conference is hosted each year by Allen & Co.

While the conference typically focuses on technology, telecom and media, and has spawned more than a few big mergers, this year's lineup features more government and foreign delegations.

Participants include Stanley McChrystal, the former US commander in Afghanistan, and John Miller, deputy commissioner of intelligence and counterterrorism for the New York Police Department. Panels start Wednesday morning.

Others arriving Tuesday included Michael Eisner, former chief executive officer of Walt Disney Co, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, and Hollywood superagents Michael Ovitz and Jeff Berg, a board member at Oracle.

Ovitz, co-founder of Creative Artists Associates, said Britain's withdrawal from the European Union will be a key topic during the five-day conference, along with the economic fallout and the US presidential race.

Eisner chatted briefly with CBS Corp. Chairman and CEO Les Moonves and CBS Vice Chairman Shari Redstone, who's been embroiled in a dispute over control of her father's other company, Viacom.

Left to right: David Zaslav, president and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. Photo / David Paul Morris
Left to right: David Zaslav, president and chief executive officer of Discovery Communications and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. Photo / David Paul Morris

Shari Redstone backed Moonves's promotion to chairman this year, and he waited about half an hour outside the lodge for her to appear Tuesday evening. Meantime, he spoke with his rivals at Walt Disney Co, CEO Bob Iger and Disney-ABC Television Group President Ben Sherwood.

Sherwood had arrived in a car with his co-worker, ESPN President John Skipper, and with Tom Staggs, the former Disney chief operating officer who stepped down earlier this year after losing his status as the frontrunner to replace Iger when his contract expires in 2018. Iger followed later in a separate vehicle.

Zaslav, CEO of Silver Spring, Maryland-based Discovery, said obtaining exclusive programming for viewers has become more crucial for entertainment companies, even in Europe's slow economy.

If you own really good quality content, there's going to be a lot more opportunity to grow your market share.

Technology and telecommunications companies have built up capabilities to deliver a so-called quadruple play -- offering telephone, TV, Internet and mobile services -- only to find they need shows, games and videos to deliver over those networks.

Discovery generated about half of its $6.39 billion in 2015 revenue outside the US.

"The marketplace for content is growing," Zaslav said. "If you own really good quality content, there's going to be a lot more opportunity to grow your market share."

Shari Redstone, vice chairman of Viacom, from left, speaks with Les Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS, and Michael Eisner. Photo / David Paul Morris
Shari Redstone, vice chairman of Viacom, from left, speaks with Les Moonves, president and chief executive officer of CBS, and Michael Eisner. Photo / David Paul Morris

Discovery has done about 75 sports rights deals in the past 18 months, Zaslav said. While costs for the most popular sports have soared, with soccer up 90 per cent, Discovery has focused on less-expensive cycling and tennis in Europe, he said.

The costs for those, as well as the Olympics, are "much more manageable," Zaslav said.

Europe and Latin America represent the most attractive opportunities, he said.

Conventional TV viewing in Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia is still growing, he said.

Many companies have spent a ton of capital building up "quadruple play" offerings to homes, only to realize that they need unique programming to distinguish themselves.

"People are consuming more content now in a meaningful way than they ever have," he said. "They just consume it on more platforms. It's a question of making sure your content is on all those platforms."

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