By Robert MacMillan - Analysis
SUN VALLEY, Idaho (Reuters) - As reporters waited for the media industry’s hotshots to arrive at their annual Sun Valley summer camp on Tuesday, the big question was “When is Rupert coming?”
Such a question is borne out of years of habit. Sun Valley has given media chieftains such as News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch a place to relax and at the same time pull off deals that alter the way people consume news and entertainment.
But this week’s gathering raises the idea that the giants who built today’s media conglomerates might soon be swept aside by rising Internet stars, such as the fresh-faced founders of social networks Twitter and Facebook.
Murdoch and his peers like Viacom Inc’s Sumner Redstone still control vast swaths of global communications, affecting how people think and live. The long foreseen, but sudden onslaught of the Internet on media consumption habits, however, has led some media experts to say this will change.
“I don’t think you’re going to have those anymore,” former Viacom Chief Executive Tom Freston said, referring to the media moguls who built their companies through the 1970s and ‘80s. “Bigness isn’t that great an asset anymore.”
The market in recent years has not approved of many of the moves of major media conglomerates, whether they be Murdoch’s acquisition of The Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones, or AOL’s disastrous acquisition of Time Warner.
Media kings sometimes become distracted by the desire to constantly enlarge their empire, said Jonathan Knee, a longtime media banker at Evercore and co-author of a book to be published in December called “Curse of the Mogul.”
“Most of them started out running very targeted, generally locally focused, highly efficient, highly profitable franchises, and the curse is that they started to enjoy the glamour and the excitement of the industry too much and lost their way,” Knee said.
Indeed, Time Warner Inc Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes is slowly pulling the conglomerate apart, undoing for investors’ benefit a merger strategy that was destroying its value.
The Internet has played its own role. Many big media companies have been trying for more than a decade to adapt their businesses to the Web. They have largely failed so far at creating sustainable strategies to adapt to a new medium without hurting their traditional businesses.
Time Warner, Walt Disney Co, CBS Corp and others attending Sun Valley this year are looking for ways to succeed, but it may be too late to preserve their image as all-powerful corporations run by omnipotent leaders.
Instead, as media and technology executives flock to this Idaho conference sponsored by Allen & Co, it is becoming clear to some that Internet kingpins -- operating as smaller moguls -- may be tomorrow’s media leaders.
“Will there be a new breed of media moguls? Absolutely,” said Richard Rosenblatt, chief of Demand Media, a network of social websites. “But, they will appear smaller, will be known for their sites and technologies, not personalities, and you won’t see them coming.”
Rosenblatt’s vision reflects the rising stars of several hot companies at the conference this year, including Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg.
Small is an idea that applies not just to the personalities, but to the companies themselves.
“I think you’ll just have different kinds of moguls,” said Blake Krikorian, co-founder of Sling Media. “I also think what will change is you’re not going to have 100 vice presidents making $1 million each a year.”
Predicting the “Autumn of the Patriarch,” as Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez put it, also has something to do with the ages of the personalities who defined what it was to be a mogul. Redstone is 86 and Murdoch is 78.
At the same time, it would be premature to say their reigns are ending. They command their presence at Sun Valley in part because they still are wily enough to strike the right deal or buy the right start-up to keep their kingdoms alive.
Rosenblatt pointed to their experience as a reason that they will keep their clout for at least a little while. “They have vaults of quality content that can be repurposed, they have distribution that can be pointed to areas on the Net and most importantly, they have done it before,” he said.
The odds of a mogul’s survival, or at least his successor‘s, will depend on his ability to see media and technology through a different lens.
“Search, and now discovery mechanisms in social networks like Facebook and Twitter are allowing total control in people’s worlds,” said Christopher Schroeder, CEO of Healthcentral.net and former chief of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. “No one needs one-stop shops any more.”
Reporting by Robert MacMillan; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Richard Chang