Peter Bart: Corporate Hubris Makes For Embattled CEOs, But Good TV

Bob Chapek, the Disney CEO who is under siege, hopefully does not watch much TV. If he does, he’ll see a succession of fellow CEOs who seem prone to self-destruction — Adam Neumann of WeWork, Travis Kalanick of Uber, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, etc. — portrayed on buzzy TV series. Viewing these shows back to back, the stolid Chapek might wonder whether the CEO is extinct as a folk hero.

To be sure, the CEOs depicted in this cycle of streamers’ series are uniformly greedy and delusional, though gifted in the hyperbole of “technospeak.” In WeCrashed, Neumann, played by Jared Leto, re-imagines renting work space as a business that “will elevate the world’s consciousness.” In Super Pumped, Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) re-defines Uber as a “higher form of life.”

The cycle is easy to dismiss except that headlines tell us a surprising number of working CEOs seem to be falling on their swords. Even Chapek, who inherited his Disney gig from Bob Iger, finds himself under political fire.

Upon retiring, Iger was heralded with a chorus of worshipful tributes. He was the master of mergers who could earn the trust of existentially difficult CEOs like Steve Jobs and Ike Perlmutter of Marvel. He could deftly dodge traps like the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” law that’s now embroils Chapek. Even in terms of paydays, Iger’s “take” never drew the attention of Tim Cook’s $99 million 2021 package or David Zaslav’s $246 million compensation bundle newly unveiled by regulators.

Iger’s mythic legacy is taking a few hits in a sharply reported new book titled Binge Times, by Dade Hayes and Dawn Chmielewski, which is subtitled “Inside Hollywood’s Furious Billion Dollar Battle to Take Down Netflix.” Written by a current and a former Deadline reporter well schooled in both tech and tv, the book probes the hits and misses of major players who tried to stay ahead of the whirlwind of change.

According to Binge, the working atmosphere under Iger was ferociously competitive, with Disney executives groomed for promotion one day, then effectively discarded the next (Tom Staggs and Kevin Mayer are prominent examples.) “When I worked there, the culture was like a nonstop rugby match,” noted Meg Whitman, who went on to become CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s partner in the ill-fated Quibi.

The book argues that “Disney managed to squander $1.6 billion on acquisitions as it chased fads from social gaming to viral video.” In 2005 Iger communed with Steve Jobs and put TV shows and movies on the iPod to stay in front of the pack, seemingly in step with Netflix and Amazon – they managed to launch in 2007. Then Iger reversed course by licensing shows rather than controlling the rights with the purpose of devising a streaming strategy. He ultimately reversed course again, launching a decade later.

To be sure, Disney was not alone in mis-reading the competition. Jeff Bewkes, the former czar of Time Warner, initially scorned Netflix as “a two-hundred pound chimp, not an eight-hundred pound gorilla.”

A decade later, yet another Time Warner regime made a giant misstep, opting to put its 2021 slate on HBO Max while releasing it simultaneously in theaters. The decision dealt a blow to talent relations and also cost $200 million in compensation to cover the talent’s lost revenues.

None of this, to be sure, measures up to the color and intrigue evoked by the current TV cycle.

Series like WeCrashed, based on the wobbly trajectory of WeWork, plays out like The Social Network on acid. Before crashing, the tech company reached a valuation of $47 billion, but one key investor still complained that its boss “wasn’t crazy enough.” Exotic investor parties are a regular perq in Super Pumped, with one Las Vegas bacchanal delivering a $25 million bill for fees and damages.

Across the board, the money-raising hustlers remained true believers in their surreal ambitions. In The Dropout, Amanda Seyfried plays the hypnotic Elizabeth Holmes whose Theranos attracted board directors like Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State George Shultz and Rupert Murdoch. The problem: Her blood-testing product didn’t work. She awaits sentencing.

To be sure, these sociopathic adventurers by no means invented the corporate hustle. For tactical background they could have consulted the buy-out barons of Barbarians at the Gate in the 1990s or the imperious bankers of The Lehman Trilogy a decade later. The Steve Jobs depicted in Danny Boyle’s 2015 film, Steve Jobs, and several other biopics was cruel and misanthropic, but he also delivered the goods, unlike Holmes or Adam Neumann. Behind the “con” lurked genius.

Bob Chapek and his brethren may not be paying much attention to the new corporate miscreants, but perhaps they should be. Their jobs clearly have become intensely political and their constituencies more complex. They must answer not only to their boards or bankers but also to their consumers.

To the Economist, a magazine that defends free markets, the lesson of a show like WeCrashed is that “the arc of capitalism embraces a capacity for self-correction.” In the end, “hubris is punished.” Meanwhile, it also makes for good television.

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