Last Sunday, I was sitting in my home office, with the murmurs of the NFL Sunday night game echoing in the background, poring over a draft of Matt Belloni
’s latest Herculean edition of What I’m Hearing…
, his definitive private email on the inside conversation and machinations of show business. As careful and dedicated readers know well, Matt’s emails are magnum opus
es of essential Hollywood information, and this installment was no different: there was a piece on Jason Blum
’s intriguing new acquisition in the horror space, fresh doubts about David Zaslav
’s closely scrutinized attempt to pare Warner Bros. Discovery’s debt burden, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an awards show crisis, plus his usual informed assessment of recent industry press and chatter.
I often hear stories from industry insiders and casual media observers, alike, about how they mark their Sunday night routines around Matt’s email. This evening’s edition was sure to get them in the holiday spirit.
Then, at around 10:30 p.m. eastern, Matt dropped the bombshell mega-news into Puck’s general Slack channel: unfathomably, Bob Iger was returning to Disney as chief executive officer. It was a stunner. And text messages began to populate on my iPhone with the same question, over and over again, from friends, media types, investors, and work pals: What’s Belloni hearing?
Moments later, Matt was ringing my phone, too, to discuss the audible he wanted to call on this Sunday evening. Everyone else was likely to save their news and analysis on Iger for the morning, but Matt was obsessed with the story and already hearing from sources. We quickly discussed a plan, and then he had to jump so that he could work the phones. Hours later, he published atop his newsletter a fresh piece of reportage, The Iger Shocker, which elegantly and perspicaciously captured the inside conversation: the board’s conundrum, Chapek’s unforced errors, the personnel fallout, Iger’s own unique connection to Disney, and industry-wide fantasies about some white whale sort of deal.
On some level, as the headline of Matt’s piece itself attests, the news was a total surprise. On another, it had been foreshadowed for ages—through Chapek’s many fumbles, Iger’s reluctance to go off on some investor-and-watercoloring third act journey, and the need for a seminal figure to reverse a 40 percent stock market decline at America’s most historic media company. Disney’s woes were an open secret, and Chapek seemed like a backup quarterback playing on a Super Bowl roster. Just last week, Matt had published a seemingly prescient piece, Disney’s Bob vs. Bob Blame Game.
The Iger news became the leitmotif at Puck during this holiday week, naturally, since it uniquely and dramatically impacts the intersection of Wall Street, Hollywood, the media, Silicon Valley, and Washington, where any putative whale of a deal would need to be approved. Julia Alexander quickly followed the news with a fantastic piece on the second most whispered question in Hollywood: What’s Iger’s streaming strategy? (Iger answered the first question, about the fate of Chapek’s deputy, Kareem Daniel, with a company-wide note about his ouster less than a day into the new job.) After all, Iger returns to Disney in a very different streaming ecosystem than the one he departed, and it’s an environment in which not all of his previous decisions have aged perfectly. The Iger+ Streaming Strategy lays bare the complex and evolving situation.
Meanwhile, Bill Cohan focused on the board dynamic at Disney, which is under pressure from activist hedge fund investors. Matt and Bill have both critiqued the board in the past for the lack of entertainment chops among its members. The board could also fairly be critiqued for the succession crisis that led to the company’s disappointing performance. Iger famously nearly retired a number of times before handing over the reins to Chapek a few years back, somewhat hastily, before Covid set in.
Sure, some of that is on Iger. But why wouldn’t the board have tried harder to retain him further, until a truly obvious successor was on hand? Indeed, Iger was always underpaid when compared to other media C.E.O.s, such as Les Moonves and David Zaslav. And I’ve wondered whether the corporate executives who largely populate the board ever truly appreciated Iger’s mastery of operations and creative management and high altitude business strategy. They sure do now! And I have to assume that Iger’s compensation on his two-year deal reflects this newfound appreciation. Check out Bill’s piece, The Chapek Coup, to contemplate what’s next.
Lastly, media narratives often blame one person for a corporate meltdown. And that’s rarely fair or reflective of the truth, which is obviously more nuanced. In Igermania, The WaPo, & Zaz, Dylan Byers reveals that the truth in this situation is far more complex, with plenty of blame to go around. Indeed, the story of Iger’s homecoming is itself one of the most fascinating plotlines of our current tech-business-media landscape. And it’s precisely the sort of story you should expect from Puck.
Have a great weekend,