Johnnie L.

Stories by Johnnie L. Roberts

  • Black Eye For Conrad Black

    Conrad Black was doing his best last week to promote his just-released book--a massive tome, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom," that he penned as a sideline to his day job. But for all his efforts to talk up FDR's New Deal, the only deals people wanted to know about were Black's. The Securities and Exchange Commission has some pointed questions about $15.6 million in unauthorized payments to Black and other top executives of his company, Hollinger, a media empire with newspapers stretching from Chicago and Canada to London and Israel. Those payments came from buyers of newspapers that Black divested between 1999 and 2001, and those millions weren't for the assets--they went directly to Black and other Hollinger brass for guarantees that they wouldn't compete directly with the papers they had just sold.Black is a famously controlling and determined personality with little patience for anyone who complains about how he runs Hollinger, the publicly traded media empire...
  • Pay 2 Play

    There's no shortage of comeback acts in the music business these days--Simon & Garfunkel, Duran Duran, Fleetwood Mac. Now, add Napster to the list. The online music service, which was shut down in 2001 after losing a courtroom fight with record labels incensed by its free-music-for-all ethos, is relaunching itself as a legit company to sell songs online. Its $20 million marketing blitz will be noteworthy for what's missing: any mention that the new Napster actually charges to download digital tracks. "We don't want to over commercialize the brand," says Chris Gorog, CEO of Roxio, Napster's parent. Trying to cash in on the freedom-loving spirit of the familiar Napster name is a smart move--competitors clearly feel threatened. Rob Glaser, CEO of RealNetworks, which owns the upstart Rhapsody download service, hopes consumers will think the Napster name is tainted by its freewheeling past. Selling a Napster download, he says, is like hawking "a porterhouse steak under the Purina...
  • Out Of Tune

    The threat of a PR disaster was huge. What if, perhaps, they caught a handicapped, homebound downloader who found joy only through free file sharing--someone who would generate a lot of sympathy? Senior executives from the Big Five music labels--Sony, Universal, EMI, AOL Time Warner and Bertelsmann--were meeting recently on their weekly conference call, and imagining everything that could go wrong with their planned lawsuits against serial downloaders and uploaders. They knew the names and addresses of their 261 targets, and nothing else. "When you fish with a net, you are going to catch a few dolphins," a top music spokeswoman later said. "We were prepared for big headlines, and lots of different PR issues."Sure enough, the offensive started badly. The New York press seized on one of the lawsuits' targets, Brianna LaHara, a 12-year-old who lives in public housing in Manhattan, as the poster child of the issue, seemingly helpless in the face of the industry's bullying. But within...
  • Nbc's New Script For Hollywood

    General Electric's current marketing slogan is "Imagination at Work." Imagine, indeed, all the possibilities if the proposed merger of GE's NBC division and Vivendi's Universal Entertainment goes through. Universal's theme parks burn through a ton of light bulbs, which they could no doubt buy on the cheap from GE, which would control 80 percent of the combined NBC Universal. Another payoff: the NBC network would start paying itself when it shells out the reported $8 million per episode for "Law & Order" and its spinoffs, all owned by Universal (too bad about the $13 million NBC pays Warner Bros. for each hour of "ER'').But it will take all of GE's powers of imagination to work through the toughest issue--whether GE can rein in Hollywood's notorious excesses by applying its rigorous "Six Sigma" system, six principles for managing quality control and customer service, among other things. The biggest challenge: breaking the habit of overindulging talent. Director Martin Brest, for...
  • Selling Cds For A Song

    50 Cent just got devalued. Responding to the music industry's prolonged business crisis, Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, last week abruptly slashed the price on rap star 50 Cent's CDs by as much as 32 percent. The same goes for virtually all of Universal's roster, including Mary J. Blige, No Doubt and Eminem, not to mention the recordings of Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana. When the price cuts take effect in October, shoppers can buy CDs from Universal Music labels--Geffen, Interscope, Def Jam, Island and Motown--at a suggested retail price of $12.98, instead of the current $16.98 to $18.98. Industry experts say that Universal's big rivals, who seemed blindsided, now face pressure to follow suit. They declined to comment or are studying options.The title of 50 Cent's CD, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'," pretty much captures the spirit of Universal's strategy, dubbed "Jumpstart." Universal execs are hoping the move will halt a prolonged industry slump-...
  • Defying All Labels

    Amid the usual skinfest of top female stars at the MTV Video Music Awards last week, one artist stood out. Amy Lee, lead singer for Evanescence, the year's hottest debut rock act, strolled the red carpet in a modest skirt and top, about as rare a sighting at the show as a rap star sans rap sheet. Lee is not without fashion sense, and she has griped about all the cleavage in the business. "I am sick and tired of seeing girls get up here and show their t--s," she once yelled during a concert. Evanescence was vying in two categories, and Lee presented in another. The band didn't get a statuette. But music insiders got a glimpse of something new: the first female lead singer of a hit rock band in years, and a relatively covered-up one at that.The real breakthrough act in the business these days, however, is the group's backer, Wind-up Records. With artists like Evanescence and Creed, it's become the most buzzworthy label in music for its talent-spotting. It's proving that the path to...
  • Beyond Definition

    It's a Wednesday in June, a typical weekday for Russell Simmons--he's hellishly overscheduled with A-list invitations. Executives from the luxury pen maker Mont Blanc were honoring him for his philanthropy. HBO, which carries the "Def Poetry Jam" series that Simmons created, invited him to the premiere party for "Sex and the City." The rapper Jay-Z was hosting a bash to christen his new lounge--the perfect setting for Simmons and his wife, ex-model Kimora, to build buzz for Simmons's own luxury watch brand, Grimaldi, by giving away some of the $6,000 timepieces.But those plans are shelved by a phone call Simmons takes in the back of his customized SUV as it's threading through Manhattan. "You know that's bull----,'' Simmons says into his cell. The caller? New York Gov. George Pataki. Simmons, the hip-hop impresario who cofounded Def Jam Recordings, has been at the forefront of an effort to reform New York's 30-year-old Rockefeller drug laws, which critics say have sent thousands to...
  • A Big Label Woos A Hit Machine

    The music business has a long playlist of problems--piracy, slumping CD sales and marketing costs that are spiraling out of control. But one steady hit maker is Lyor Cohen, CEO of Island/Def Jam Records, who's poised to get the kind of courtship usually reserved for star artists.His five-year contract will expire early next year; rival Warner Music Group has quietly alerted Cohen that a top post is available, senior AOL Time Warner execs told NEWSWEEK. Formal talks haven't started--Cohen's current employer, Vivendi Universal, has rights to try to re-sign him, and rivals risk being sued if they interfere. Cohen won't comment, and Warner Music boss Roger Ames will only say he's a longtime Cohen fan.Cohen has hit mostly high notes at the Universal Music Group label. Def Jam rap stars, such as Ja Rule and Jay-Z, and new artist Ashanti, have helped Universal dominate the charts. The hip-hop exec has scored in rock music, too, with an established group like Bon Jovi and the new act Sum 41...
  • A Groundhog Day For Big Media

    Lost in the debate leading up to this week's vote by the Federal Communications Commission on media deregulation is the "Groundhog Day'' point: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Remember when TV sets were topped with rabbit ears? The living-room glow was owned by just three networks. Then, as the world of media exploded, established players kept adding movie studios, TV stations, cable and broadcast networks, news outlets and the like to hold onto a dominant share of the pie as the pie kept expanding.The big media companies will likely get some help from the FCC, which is expected to jettison prohibitions that now curtail single ownership of TV and radio stations and newspapers in a town or city. Protesters argue that media empires reduce the diversity of sources for news, information and entertainment. Why fear consolidation? Just look, they say, at Rupert Murdoch, whose unabashed political leanings are on display on Fox News Channel. The media power concentrated...
  • Shadow Man

    Long before it merged with America Online, Time Warner began holding its annual shareholder meetings at Harlem's Apollo Theater. But for the gathering this Friday, the company chose the Lans-downe Resort in Virginia, near the AOL unit's headquarters. The move looks like a standard Big Business play: if you only have bad news, like a slumping stock and a deepening investigation of accounting irregularities, hold your meeting in the boonies. It also will be the last such meeting run by chairman Steve Case, who initiated the ill-fated $350 billion merger. A shareholder uprising pushed him to resign his job, effective Friday. But that's not enough of a demotion to satisfy AOL's biggest shareholder, who plans to withhold his 305 million, or 7 percent of, AOL shares in the vote to re-elect Case as a director. His message: clean out your e-mail and go.Who helped push Case out of the top job, and now wants him gone? Gordon Crawford. He's the invisible mogul, a mutual-fund manager for...
  • Reconstruction: Piece Of The Pie, Please

    As the reconstruction of Iraq gets underway, a cottage industry has sprung up to facilitate the grab for war spoils. On May 5, Equity International will sponsor "The Iraqi Reconstruction Conference," where private companies, relief groups and development organizations can network with top government officials and bureaucrats overseeing the rebuilding of Iraq--an estimated $25 billion to $100 billion undertaking. Early-bird registration for the conference: $245 to $495. Months before a single JDAM struck Baghdad, EI began planning its gathering. "It was our feeling there would be conflict," says William Loiry, EI's president. EI has held similar reconstruction conferences covering trouble spots from Kosovo and Bosnia to Afghanistan. "For us, it has become a niche," says Loiry.EI now has competition. On May 1, London-based military-data giant Jane's Information Group and Washington think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are cosponsoring "Companies on the...
  • Aol Time Warner: This Time It's Personal

    AOL Time Warner hoped to put an end last week to its three-year saga of turf wars, power plays and a gut-wrenching stock plunge. Steve Case, the company's chairman, finally stepped down. The board quickly gave Richard Parsons, the CEO, the additional title of chairman. "This is the management team for the foreseeable future," Parsons tells NEWSWEEK. "The company is on the mend." But the company has spun off a new soap opera, this one involving Gerald Levin, Parson's retired boss and the longtime CEO of Time Warner who helped engineer the AOL deal. Levin disclosed that he was dumping his wife of 32 years, Barbara, to marry a woman he'd fallen in love with seemingly overnight. According to friends of Levin and his estranged wife, he began a relationship with Laurie Perelman, a former Hollywood agent-cum-psychologist, about two months ago. They first met about a year ago when she approached Levin about investing in a start-up corporate-counseling business. Levin became an adviser. In...
  • You've Got Questions

    They got the message. AOL Time Warner executives knew investors weren't happy and wanted some clear answers to the company's problems. So during a four-hour presentation to Wall Street last week, company brass packed in enough announcements to fill a screen with pop-up ads. Their recovery plan, they said, would include an aggressive push into broadband, premium content offerings, a discount shopping site and more. Steve Case, the chairman, trumpeted the strategy as a fresh start. "It is a new day,'' he said. Not quite. AOL shares, which had rebounded to the teens after hitting a low of $8.70 this summer, fell 15 percent over three days. The company appeared to be still searching for answers. Case invited his 35 million subscribers to send ideas for improving the service, and 160,000 responded. For now, analysts say AOL is raising more questions than providing answers. NEWSWEEK's take:Will customers pay more for premium content and communications services?AOL sees its future in the...
  • How It All Fell Apart

    Perhaps Mona Lisa, with her uncertain smile, knew something at the time that nobody else did. In the fall of 1999, an upstart group with the lofty title of the Global Business Dialogue on Electronic Commerce had chosen the Louvre for its first conference. The setting certainly matched its ambitions--to set worldwide standards for cyberspace and electronic commerce. Among the conference heavyweights: Gerald Levin, the CEO of Time Warner, the world's largest media company, and Steve Case, chairman of America Online, the Internet king. The two men wound up chatting about big ideas; the belief that companies should be values-driven, rather than mere slaves to profit targets. "We weren't talking about putting our companies together'' at the Louvre, Levin would later note in a NEWSWEEK interview. And despite the warm words, there was in fact unspoken tension between the two men. Earlier in 1999, Case had pushed regulators to force AT&T, Time Warner Cable and the rest of the industry...
  • All The News That's Fit To Merge

    Surely there's an easier way to make money. But execs at Disney and AOL Time Warner appear determined to go the hard route, and have fixated yet again on their long-running interest in merging their respective news-gathering operations--Disney's ABC News and AOL's CNN division. The tantalizing prize: at least $100 million. That's what many experts say the two companies could reap in savings by combining their newsroom operations, merging far-flung bureaus and thinning ranks of pricey newsreaders. Both AOL and Disney are in desperate need of some good news to deliver to investors, in the hope of propping up their embarrassingly low stock prices. The ABC-CNN negotiations came up at a recent AOL board meeting.But the hurdles to such a deal are enormous, and some executives inside AOL tell NEWSWEEK they think the timing for such talks couldn't be worse. The company is dealing with a federal investigation into accounting practices at its AOL online unit--not the right moment to be...
  • The Rap Of Luxury

    Radio stations have played Busta Rhymes's latest megahit more than 97,000 times. Busta performed his ode to the pricey cognac on "The Tonight Show." And MTV and BET have aired the video version a combined 600 times. In it, Busta and his collaborator, P. Diddy, defeat evildoers, get the girls and toast their triumphs with "yack," hip-hop's shorthand for cognac. Across the Atlantic, British spirits giant Allied Domecq, which owns Courvoisier, is toasting Busta, too. Over the past several months Courvoisier's U.S. sales have popped by double digits, thanks in part to Busta's making the drink "the hero of the song,'' says Stephanie DeBartolomeo, the cognac's brand manager. Talk about free advertising--no deal was struck between Busta and the distiller beforehand. And it's not even his favorite cognac. "I'm a Hennessey dude," he tells NEWSWEEK. Lucky for Courvoisier he liked the sound of its name better.This is the rich sound of hip-hop: cash registers ringing loudly for luxury brands....
  • Aol Building: Down, But Going Up

    The building is going up (and up), but it isn't rising as fast as the questions about one future occupant. The AOL Time Warner Center, as it's currently named, is rising 80 stories above Central Park, a $1.7 billion, twin-tower project that was billed as an urban breakthrough marrying residential, commercial and retail space under one roof. Filling some of the space: $40 million penthouses, a Cartier store and the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. And the most prestigious tenant of all, according to the plans? The world's largest media company.As an original partner in 1998, Time Warner forked over $150 million upfront. A bank is financing as much as $500 million more, which the company will owe. For that, it will own 10 floors for corporate digs, an additional expanse for its CNN studios and naming rights to the building. (Original name: the Time Warner Center.)But with AOL stock tanking, New Yorkers are buzzing about whether the company name still has the cachet to command such...
  • Aol's Board Is Digging In

    The decision haunts them. Forty-nine floors above midtown Manhattan, Time Warner's directors met in secrecy on a Sunday 31 months ago. One by one, all 13--including Stephen F. Bollenbach, CEO of Hilton; Reuben Mark, CEO of Colgate-Palmolive, and Michael Miles, CEO of Philip Morris--voted to sell Time Warner to the Internet giant America Online, despite pointed questions. Some directors asked whether Time Warner might prosper more without AOL. Was the $165 billion price tag, payable in AOL shares, enough, others asked, especially if a sagging stock could deflate the price before the deal closed? "This deal was a big leap of faith," says a person who was at the meeting. Yet the board jumped, assured by Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin that "convergence" of new and old media and the growth it would produce were real. "Jerry had a firm grip on the board," says a senior AOL Time Warner official. But so far, what became the biggest deal in the history of the media business has produced only...
  • You've Got New Management

    Avoiding "Sex" was a sure sign that the marriage of AOL Time Warner was in trouble. Last Tuesday, top company execs were supposed to show up for a welcome break from the relentless gloom of AOL's sagging stock price: premiere night for the new season of "Sex and the City," the smash series on AOL Time Warner's HBO. But CEO Richard Parsons didn't appear at the glittering event at the Museum of Natural History. Nor did Bob Pittman, his No. 2. The most glaring no-show, however, was the night's host, Jeff Bewkes, HBO's boss. One of his lieutenants tried to wave off his absence. "Some family thing," he explained, as a beaming Sarah Jessica Parker and "Sex" costars sashayed down a pink carpet.But Bewkes was off at dinner with Parsons, along with chairman Steve Case and Don Logan, CEO of the Time Inc. unit. With Pittman poised to quit after being blamed for many of the company's ills, Parsons had decided that Bewkes and Logan were going to move up in a big restructuring. Case, though, was...
  • Sticky Business

    When President Bush came to Wall Street to jawbone chief executives about corporate responsibility, Dick Cheney, the vice president and a former CEO himself, wasn't with him. When Bush met at the White House with his new Justice Department corporate-crime "SWAT team," Cheney was elsewhere--at a national-security meeting, his aides said. Two cabinet CEOs--Paul O'Neill of Treasury and Don Evans of Commerce--headlined televised town-hall meetings after Bush's speech, and were headed to the Sunday TV talk shows to pitch the president's program. Cheney's only comments on the need for tougher oversight of business were made at Republican fundraisers.Cheney's aides say it's all business as usual, that the veep normally doesn't play this kind of public role. But his absence from the debate about corporate behavior and CEO misdeeds is striking. After all, he seems to be more than qualified to work the mahogany pulpit. He ran Halliburton, the huge oil-services company, for five years. During...
  • Waiting In The Wings

    Barry Diller tried to plant himself backstage last week, far from the spotlight that focused on troubles in the world of Big Media. Vivendi, the French conglomerate that includes the Universal Entertainment division that Diller has run for two months, finally booted its CEO, Jean-Marie Messier, after his ambitious plan to remake a former water utility collapsed under the weight of staggering debt and a sinking stock price. Diller, spinning the turmoil back in Paris as the least of his concerns, appeared to be focusing instead on racing to the Hamptons behind the wheel of his convertible for the Fourth of July. He even seemed more attuned to how he was portrayed in the gossip columns than the business pages. He noted that he was wrongly described as hosting the likes of P. Diddy, Lizzie Grubman and Naomi Campbell for a celebration aboard a 100-foot yacht. "My yacht is bigger than that," he said to a friend. Never mind that these boldface names aren't his crowd, which tends more to...
  • Jerry Levin Swans On A Blue Note

    Jerry Levin strolled onto the stage of Harlem's famed Apollo Theatre--the site of AOL Time Warner's annual meeting last week--for his final bow as CEO. Many music legends, like B. B. King and Muddy Waters, have played there, and Levin, wanting to capture the moment, said it was his last opportunity to indulge a longstanding fantasy of becoming a great blues singer. His timing was perfect--since many investors in the audience were feeling pretty blue themselves. They've seen AOL's stock sink in value by billions of dollars in the year since AOL acquired Time Warner. "I know the frustration you feel now is real," Levin said to the crowd. "Have faith in this company." Ending his short speech, he said he would just "fade away, an old CEO."And Levin was quickly gone from the theater. But he won't be forgotten any time soon. Yes, he can point to many successes during 30 years of presiding over Time Inc., Time Warner and, finally, AOL Time Warner. He'd led the launch of HBO, initiated the...
  • Nbc's Real Fear Factor

    Coming to a small screen near you: "Kingpin," a gritty, riveting drama about a Latin American drug cartel run by the kind of murderers who mail the severed head of a drug agent to his colleagues back at the office. Send the kids to bed--is HBO on? Actually, no. "Kingpin" probably will air on NBC in prime time this winter, and is apt to generate controversy. Bring it on, says NBC entertainment chief Jeff Zucker. "That'll only make everyone want to tune in to see what the fuss is all about,'' he said during a recent interview at his West Coast office.If Susan Lyne has the toughest job in Hollywood in trying to revive ABC, Zucker arguably has the second toughest--making sure he extends NBC's long winning streak in prime time. The two executives have plenty in common, too. Both are former journalists (Zucker produced the "Today" show for years); neither had experience in programming or scheduling prime-time series before getting the nod, and both have to break some rules and invent some...
  • Prime-Time

    To: Network Brass.Re: Hot Fall Pilot.So maybe this won't make the cut for the new fall shows. Too bad, since it's probably the best story line the television industry has to offer right now. This is the week, after all, that Susan Lyne, the new head of entertainment at ABC, unveils her first lineup of shows to reverse the network's wrenching ratings slide into fourth place, an embarrassing fall caused largely by the country's sudden uninterest in watching Regis endlessly quiz would-be millionaires. In recent weeks Lyne and her troops have pored over 110 scripts and screened 29 pilots, from which they chose eight series that they're hoping will help make ABC the king of family-friendly sitcoms and dramas. Their picks include "Legally Blond," based on the movie about a clueless Harvard Law student, and "The Oath," about two HMO doctors fighting the system. "For the most part, I'm thrilled," Lyne said last week.Even discounting for Hollywood hyperbole, it's hard to exaggerate the...
  • The Race To The Top

    Sun-splashed and blanketed with golf courses, Boca Grande, Fla., is a natural habitat for that most elite breed of American capitalism: members of the old boys' network. On a single day last spring, you could spot an intimate gathering of these Masters of the Universe flown down from the north: honchos from American Express and AOL Time Warner and Merrill Lynch. The scene was as you'd expect: lots of backslapping, nostalgic talk about Harvard M.B.A. days and the requisite ribbing about the precision (or lack thereof) of their golf games. ...
  • Cable's A-Team

    In the never-ending attempts to convince consumers that nirvana is just one purchase away, snake-oil salesmen may have a better track record than peddlers of broadband. Despite endless hype about movies on demand, instant music downloads and Internet access in nanoseconds, broadband bliss has yet to materialize. It's been too expensive, too hard to install--and just not all that compelling for many TV viewers. That didn't stop a shrewd father-and-son team from placing a $72 billion bet on broadband in late December. Backed by Micro-soft, No. 3 cable operator Comcast Inc. of Pennsylvania won a bidding war for AT&T Broadband, the nation's largest cable company. In walking off with the prize, the glitzless Comcast defeated bidder AOL Time Warner, cable's No. 2 player.Comcast quickly proclaimed its victory the turning point in broadband's frustrated history. "If you think broadband has a great future, this [transaction] accelerates it," Brian Roberts, president of Comcast and the...
  • Why Diller Is On Top Of The World

    In the annals of american labor, show-business mogul Barry Diller has set a record for pay that's unlikely ever to be broken. By merely showing up for the first day's work as chief executive of the newly created Vivendi Universal Entertainment, Diller will collect a 1.5 percent piece of the action worth at least $275 million. Even if he were to quit--for good reason, of course--on the spot. But wait, it gets better. Unlike almost every other American working stiff, Diller will enjoy a second fortune in tax savings on his compensation. NEWSWEEK has learned that if Diller unloads his stake even on his first day of work, his $275 million won't be regular income, but capital gains. As such, he'll pay Uncle Sam almost $60 million less in income taxes than he'd pay if his $275 million were considered salary. "When you are bringing in talent like Barry Diller, you have to give him strong incentive," says Jean-Marie Messier, chief executive of Vivendi Universal, and Diller's putative boss...
  • Make Way For The Ceo

    AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin returned with his trusted deputy Richard Parsons from a tour of Ground Zero, devastated. Not since the 1997 murder of his son had Levin appeared as shattered as he did looking over the wreckage that September morning. "He seemed to almost cry when he talked about 9-11," says Sandy Reisenbach, a Warner Bros. studio executive who, as another father of a murdered son, is a member of a sad fraternity with his boss. But the devastation also seemed to infuse Levin with a new sense of purpose for his media empire. "Our commitment not to just build our business but to make a difference" is among the company's "unique resources," he proclaimed in a companywide e-mail on Sept. 14. By early November, Levin was telling a gathering of investors that AOL Time Warner would spend heavily on its mission as a "public trust," even if that lowered profits. "I'm the CEO, and this is what I'm going to do," Levin also reportedly said. "I don't care what anyone else says."...
  • Cbs's Real Survivor

    As any TV executive will tell you, television is a game of numbers and gut feeling. And it was by those rules that CBS chief Leslie Moonves decided to end round-the-clock, commercial-free coverage of the 9-11 attacks after 93 hours, and to resume normal broadcasting with regular Saturday-morning fare, toy ads and all. CBS had lost upwards of $200 million of ads in the four days since Dan Rather and crew began nonstop news. By the weekend, viewers were tuning out: Nielsen reports revealed that the whopping 77 million audience on the night of the attacks had dwindled to half that size by Friday evening. Well aware that more was at stake than mere economics, Moonves took the unprecedented move of consulting with two CBS rivals to gauge the propriety of returning to business as usual.Ultimately, Moonves and his network brethren agreed that the best way to help bolster the country was to do what they do best--even if that meant sitcoms and "Survivor." But was America really ready for a...