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An audacious attempt at media giant status

The steady, boring cable company may take over the glitzy entertainment giant whose name is heralded worldwide as an American icon. Comcast's $56 billion unsolicited stock bid for Disney, even if unsuccessful, could threaten Michael Eisner's long, tumultuous reign.
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Michael D. Eisner, chief executive of Walt Disney Co., is the expansive entertainment mogul, a Great White in the Hollywood shark tank. Brian L. Roberts, chief executive of Comcast Corp., is a low-key former Ivy League squash star, son of a Philadelphia beltmaker.

But Eisner, in a break from character in recent years, has been among the most conservative media titans, eschewing acquisitions while trying to steady his company, which was rocked by recession, a tourism drop-off, a board revolt and a falling stock price. Roberts, meanwhile, in the words of one fellow media executive, has been acting like a "gunslinger," expanding his cable company with a quiet rapaciousness and big deals such as the $50 billion takeover of AT&T cable in 2002.

Now, the steady, boring cable company known mostly for the monthly bill in your mailbox may take over the glitzy entertainment giant whose name is heralded worldwide as an American icon. Comcast's $56 billion unsolicited stock bid for Disney, even if unsuccessful, could threaten Eisner's long, tumultuous reign. Whatever the outcome, Roberts appears destined to continue his drive to widen his presence across the cable-media landscape. He has, said one cable industry executive who knows him, "a sense of destiny" for Comcast, "an inexorable march in which they're going to acquire more and more assets."

Two opposites
The differences between the two men run deep. Roberts, 44, would rather not give interviews or have his picture in the paper, say those who know him. Eisner ebulliently wore a Mickey Mouse T-shirt on national television while accepting the Major League Baseball commissioner's trophy after the Anaheim Angels, which Disney owned, won the 2002 World Series.

Eisner, 61, became Disney chairman in 1984 and, for more than a decade, had the golden touch. He revived the company's animated movie franchise, which had cranked out bombs such as 1985's "The Black Cauldron," and produced a string of hits, including "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King." Under his leadership, Disney became a franchising juggernaut, with Disney stores in hundreds of shopping malls. The fun slowed in 1994, when Disney's attempt to build a theme park in Northern Virginia, "Disney's America," failed in the face of local opposition and heavy media coverage. Eisner evidently still bears the scars of the defeat, bringing it up unbidden in a conversation with a Washington Post reporter in his office last summer.

In 1995, Disney -- during a wave of media expansion -- bought Capital Cities/ABC Inc., a group of television stations and then the dominant television network. For the first time, Disney revenue, driven by the steady theme park and movie engines, was exposed to the cyclic whims of the advertising and television-ratings world. The 1999 television season was ABC's last at No. 1 in the ratings. It's been downhill since, with the network tied for third in prime-time audience with Fox.

ABC's decline in the ratings coincided with the departure of Stephen B. Burke, the Disney executive who ran the network, launched the Disney stores and restarted Euro Disney after an inauspicious beginning. He left in 1998 for Comcast.

The executives Eisner put in Burke's place have been unable to right the network. For every step ABC has made, such as an uptick in fall 2002 ratings, there has been a step back, such as the spring 2003 failure, "Are You Hot?"

Simmering feud
Amid Disney's uncertainties, Eisner has been tight-lipped about his strategy for its future. Repeatedly pressed by investors to reveal his plan for transition upon his retirement, Eisner has said there is a plan but has refused to divulge it. At times, he takes unexpected action, such as spending a day at the cable industry's annual convention a couple of years ago where he walked the floor, talked with star-struck vendors and attracted an entourage.

But Eisner has spent the past few months in a simmering feud with Roy E. Disney, a nephew of the company's founder. The conflict flared in December, when Disney quit the board, saying Eisner was ruining his uncle's company.

Most recently, Eisner has been unable to work his magic again on the company's animation studio, which has produced only one hand-drawn hit, "Lilo & Stitch," in years. The studio has relied on the expertise of Pixar Animation Studios Inc., a 50-50 partner, which produced last year's hit, "Finding Nemo."

When Eisner and Pixar chief executive Steve Jobs -- both known for their considerable egos -- could not work out a deal to continue the partnership, Eisner came away looking more vulnerable than ever.

Roberts, may have been quietly sniffing around Disney for a while. At a recent dinner, Roberts sat next to Leslie Moonves, the voluble president of CBS. During the chitchat around the table, Roberts offhandedly asked Moonves his opinion of the television network industry. Moonves offered his views on, among other things, ABC, which is owned by Disney.

"Little did I know his interest was more than conversational," Moonves said yesterday, laughing.

Face of New Cable
Now, the low-key Roberts is poised for a major hurdle into the media world. He is already the face of New Cable. For years, that face had belonged to the brilliant but imperious John Malone, president of Liberty Media Co. and former head of cable giant TCI, known for making money while customer service lagged. That was the era when the stereotype was the indifferent cable installer who said he'd show up sometime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Maybe.

Roberts represents the era of a digital service with multiple channels, interactive television, on-demand movies and a reinvigorated customer-service ethic -- albeit at higher rates -- all spurred by the rising competition of home satellite services, which have eaten into cable's monopoly.

Even though Comcast is the nation's largest cable company, with 22 million subscribers, it is still a family-run company, started by Roberts's father, Ralph J. Roberts, who was scared out of the belt business in the early '60s by the introduction of adjustable Sansabelt pants. The Roberts family is so laid back, the father once worked for Muzak.

Ralph Roberts insisted that his son learn the entire cable business, which meant Brian installed cable boxes, manned a call center and ran a small cable system before he took over Comcast.

Hollywood has written this story arc and remade it many times: "A Star Is Born," the intersection of an aging, declining star and a young, rising star-in-the-making, both of whom seek to occupy the same space.

Many sense that Eisner's struggles, after 20 years at the top of the world's most famous entertainment company, signal the end of an epoch. Every cult of personality dwindles.

Bert Denton, president of Providence Capital Inc., sold his stock in Disney last summer but bought back in yesterday. The Comcast bid represents the beginning of the end for Disney's chief, he said.

"With all due respect to Michael Eisner," Denton said, "regime change after all these years might not be a bad idea."

Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.