OFF THE GRID

Comcast and NBC: Curse of the Moguls Strikes Again

Dec 3, 09 | 8:16 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The Times business section leads with one of those stories that have been so often written about great media mergers: How did it happen, who whispered what to whom, who knew what when about the deal? In the past, these stories were breathless if not orgiastic. This one, about the Comcast-GE/NBC deal, is notably subdued.

Partly, this is because any business reporter could have written it in his or her sleep. It’s the same hoary story: that panting dog, Jimmy Lee, the banker at JPMorgan Chase, getting the parties together at the Allen & Co. conference; the scene in Sun Valley; the grumpy, but somehow heroic, CEOs facing off like old bulls. Blah blah. And partly, it is because there have been so many media mergers before—mythical combinations of distribution and content, many of them concocted in Sun Valley and almost none of them have worked out—that, well, even business reporters have to show some amount of soberness and skepticism.

Not to mention embarrassment. Media mergers were—despite, over the years, the ever-mounting evidence against their probity and efficacy—glorified by the media itself. In some sense, that’s why they happened: You couldn’t be a media mogul without getting the media’s attention for doing a media deal.

The results of 20 years of obsessive-compulsive media combinations—something like a thousand companies reduced to five—are succinctly outlined in the best media book of the season: The Curse of the Mogul, by Jonathan Knee, Bruce Greenwald, and Ava Seave.

It’s one of the grimmest pictures of any industry that you might read. It’s a portrait of hubris and human error. Its detailed and mathematically supported conclusion is that, certainly for investors (and, too, for many employees and content creators), the worst thing that can happen to you is to be part of an ultimate media combination. The last man standing is the fool.

The book goes further. In unemotional prose—the authors teach together at Columbia Business School—we come to understand that a generation of media business executives had almost no idea of what they were talking about. Literally, they misunderstood the nature of business cause and effect. It was a deluded generation.

So how come it’s happening again? How come a big media merger can happen even at this point, when the evidence of failure is so explicit and so expertly chronicled, when so many of even the most deluded media executives are now, to say the least, sheepish and chastened? How come those geniuses at Comcast and GE (which will still be stuck with 49% of this pig in a poke) aren’t being carted off?

Partly, it’s because now, as in the past, the media is always circumspect when it comes to big deals. Professional courtesy and wariness of future employers keeps the media from piling on or falling down laughing.

And partly because the media is in such bad shape, such seemingly terminal condition, such a no-exit moment, that even the worst idea seems worth a try.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at
VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.
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