BOB GARFIELD: Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, Barry Diller, Martha Stewart --these are the media titans of our age, or as Michael Wolff calls them, moguls. Wolff, in his New York Magazine column, variously chronicles the exploits, assassinates the character and ruminates on the larger meaning of these larger than life figures that he theorizes are presiding over the self-destruction of big media. His new book, Autumn of the Moguls, nominally follows the progress of a Wall Street media conference but is mainly just a pretext for Wolff to hold forth on the titans he simultaneously envies and loathes. Michael Wolff joins us now. Michael, welcome to On the Media.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Thank you very much. That's the best summary I have heard of this book so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Thank you. Keep flattering me, and this could go very, very well. So tell me, why do you think that big media are doomed.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Well I think by all the conventional measures, it seems quite clear that there's a big problem here. There's a problem for investors -- none of these companies have kept pace over 20 years with the S&P 500. For each of the core businesses of these companies, be it magazines, television, books, radio, you name it, each of these businesses is weaker now than it was ten years ago or ten years before that. Combined with the fact that you have massive audience flight in every realm of this business, you literally cannot hold on to your customer base, I'd say that that's the base line for this doomsday scenario.
BOB GARFIELD:I guess the poster children for your theory would be Jean-Marie Messier, formerly of Vivendi, and Jerry Levin, formerly of AOL Time Warner.
MICHAEL WOLFF: They will do as poster children, yes.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] But you seem to have more regard for Barry Diller, one, and also surprisingly for Rupert Murdoch whom you, if I recall correctly, hitherto had pretty much routinely excoriated in your column, portrayed as, as a sort of anti-Christ, but it, it seems that you're coming around to a different way of thinking?
MICHAEL WOLFF: You know I'm not sure I've come around to a different way of thinking other than the fact that I have met Murdoch and I like him personally. I think he's smart. I think he's open. He shares my interest, which is the media business, so he's fun to talk to. Having said that, I think that his company is as doomed as, as any others if for no other reason that Rupert is 72 and certainly can't last forever. I mean one of the interesting things about Rupert is that you can literally blame the state of the media business on him. The media business as it is now construed in which companies own every part of the media business is a Murdoch idea, and really when he started this, and he may have started it with a certain kind of logic, he was followed by everyone else with absolutely no logic other than the fact that they were desperately frightened that he knew something they didn't know.
BOB GARFIELD:We on this program have often wrung our hands and beat our chests about media consolidation as an affront to democracy and a danger to democracy. But to read your book, I guess I should conclude that I needn't worry about consolidation because the marketplace will take care of the problem -- that these gigantic structures will simply eventually collapse of their own weight.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Yeah, I -- well, I, I, I think it's true --you don't have to worry about it -- at least looking forward a few years from now. And it all, although it is an affront to democracy, it's also interestingly enough, an affront to business. It just doesn't work.
BOB GARFIELD:Let's say these gigantic corporations do eventually or rapidly disintegrate. If the media business follows the, the path of other industries, that means there should be one uber-player who's there to gobble up the pieces for pennies on the dollar and survive and prosper in the ashes of its former competitors.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Who do you suppose will be the last colossus standing?
MICHAEL WOLFF: It's noteworthy that, that GE has just gobbled up Vivendi. Vivendi auctioned itself off, and GE bought it for, practically speaking, nothing. Suddenly there was that moment where everybody said -- "Oh, my God. So that's the value of a diversified media company. Zero." And so I think you're right, that this is going to happen, and it will be -- I don't know, it may be GE. Comcast is probably a likely ultimate consolidator. They will very shortly dominate television distribution. But I think one of the processes that happens here is it's not one person but it's, it's a kind of -- everything falls in on itself. So I would say Comcast is part of the surviving entity and-- add to that somebody who has financing ability, and you'll have the final media conglomerate.
BOB GARFIELD:You describe Jean-Marie Messier, the disgraced architect of Vivendi, as a fool. You characterize Jerry Levin of, formerly of AOL Time Warner as having behaved stupidly. You call Sumner Redstone of Viacom a major pompous ass. You say yourself in your book that you're a proximity crack head, yet having attained proximity to the moguls, you seen not to be able to help yourself from attacking them. Was there any of them who, having, having gotten to know you have some grudging respect for, who, who you believe may be the very genius and visionary that he represents himself to be?
MICHAEL WOLFF: Well, as I said before, I think the problems with being a genius and visionary is that you will invariably become the opposite of that. But right now, the genius and visionary of the media business, precisely because he has gotten out of the media business, is Barry Diller. Absolutely no question. He's the guy on whose shoulders none of this disaster will fall. He's, he's effectively brushed this aside, washed his hands of this, and has taken his money and run.
BOB GARFIELD: Unlike almost everyone else you write about, he bought low and sold high.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Michael, thank you very much for joining us.
MICHAEL WOLFF: Hey, thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD:New York Magazine columnist Michael Wolff is author of Autumn of the Moguls: My Misadventures with the Titans, Poseurs and Money Guys Who Mastered and Messed Up Big Media. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a cartoonist's take on politics and war, and a disloyal OTM reporter gives away our radio secrets.