Johnnie L.

Stories by Johnnie L. Roberts

  • Digital Divide

    DO BELIEVE THE HYPE! WHEN IT comes to digital television, the revolutionary new offering now on the communications horizon, the picture on the screen doesn't lie. And there were numerous screens showing the technology's promise in Las Vegas last week, at a convention of the nation's broadcasters. On one, birds in a wildlife documentary were so lifelike that they seemed to react to movement in the audience, and the sound was so clear that they seemed to be fluttering and cawing right there in the room. On another, crystal-clear scenes from a Masters golf tournament made you feel as if you were in the gallery. True, these were only demos. But if all goes according to the plans laid out this month by communications regulators, the age of digital TV is at hand. In 18 months TV signals will begin appearing in the infallible language of computers, sweeping away a half century of fuzzy analog TV. "The promise here is to reinvent an industry," gushes Gerard J. Waldron, a Washington lawyer...
  • Corner-Office Intrigue

    A GLAMOROUS BUSINESS STARTS TO teeter. A legendary boss battles to keep power after two decades at the top. Household names threaten to defect. Meanwhile, a romance in the executive suite makes tabloid headlines. If ABC television were in the market for a new soap opera, it wouldn't have to look beyond its own news division for juicy material. Surely this is not what Michael Eisner, CEO of ABC parent Walt Disney Co., had in mind when he talked about improving the network. ...
  • Music, Money, Murder

    IN BUSINESS, THE BEAT tends to go on no matter what. Consider the music industry, especially the increasingly bloody rap subgenre known as gangsta. When superstar Tupac Shakur was killed in September, Arista Records was zeroing in on a $75 million joint-venture deal with Sean (Puffy) Combs, the producing whiz behind New York-based Bad Boy Entertainment. Combs and Bad Boy were strongly disliked by another record bigwig, Death Row Records owner Marion (Suge) Knight, a man with a violent past. And Shakur, Death Row's talented, but troubled, hit seller, was stoking a harsh feud with Combs's biggest seller, Christopher Wallace, the rapper stage-named the Notorious B.I.G. All of this unpleasantness alarmed record giant Arista, especially the wide, though inaccurate, speculation about a possible Bad Boy link to Tupac's ambush. How to protect its investment in Bad Boy? Put a ""key man'' clause in the deal with Combs, 26. A standard tool in corporate America, the provision allows a company...
  • Rupert's Death Star

    LAST MONTH RUPERT MURDOCH'S Twentieth Century Fox studio re-released "Star Wars," the intergalactic action-adventure film. And last week Murdoch did a little Darth Vader act of his own. Feet firmly planted on Earth, the space-age buccaneer detailed his brazen strategy to accelerate and escalate his long-planned attack on the U.S. cable industry. In a lightning $1 billion strike, Murdoch had acquired control of EchoStar, a fledgling satellite TV company, and combined it with his own yet-to-be-launched venture. The Murdoch mission: nothing less than supplanting Big Cable in America's living rooms with his 500 channels of programming beamed in from outer space. And he claimed to have a new killer weapon, something satellite TV has always lacked: technology that will let his service deliver hometown high-school sports scores, weather and news along with a blizzard of Hollywood movies and pro sports events. ...
  • Field Marshal

    TED FIELD GETS EMOTIONAL remembering it now, that quiet moment less than a year ago. Field, the entertainment mogul and scion of Chicago's Marshall Field retailing fortune, was in his office high above Wilshire Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Standing in front of him, bathed in the soothing neutral colors of the huge room, was Tupac Shakur, the gangsta-rap star who had just been bailed out of a New York prison while he appealed a sexual-battery conviction. The unlikely pair talked about Tupac's upcoming film, "Gridlock'd," for the company Field founded. ...
  • Pitsville, U.S.A.

    IT WAS THE NIGHT OF THE MIKE Tyson-Evander Holyfield showdown. A hip crowd had gathered at the Beverly Hills mansion of record mogul Andre Harrell for a fight party: the kind of affair that he calls ""ghetto fabulous,'' an edgy mix of black attitude with upscale white richesse. Veronica Webb, the black supermodel, was there. So was hip-hop star Heavy D. The guests quaffed champagne and catered goodies from Georgia, bistro to the stars. And they talked business, scrupulously avoiding one sensitive topic. To wit: that Motown Records, once linked with a studio called Hitsville USA, hasn't scored a single major hit during Harrell's one-year reign as chief executive. Only two weeks earlier, in fact, Motown's owner, PolyGram, blamed it for a major chunk of a $90 million revamping charge. Not to worry. ""Andre will prevail like the underdog Holyfield,'' predicts Ms. Webb, recalling the fight's surprising end. ...
  • Villain Or Victim?

    EVEN JOHN LE CARRE MIGHT BE hard pressed to craft such an exquisite caper as the one now ensnarling Rupert Murdoch. At dawn two Sundays ago, in a pocket of Jerusalem packed with high-tech companies, a small army of Israeli tax agents stormed a remote but pivotal outpost of the media baron's global empire. Simultaneously, the raiders crashed the home of Murdoch's top Israeli executive as well as his lawyers' offices--a firm whose partners include the son of a former Israeli president. A sensational story, no doubt, and Israel's press reveled in it. TAX FRAUD OF THE CENTURY, blared one headline, laying bare the supposed details of an alleged scam by a Murdoch operation to evade some $50 million in taxes. Worldwide, early news reports all but declared Murdoch to be a fugitive, with the furies of justice hot on his tail. ...
  • Buyers Beware

    A GIVEAWAY WAS THE AIR CONDItioner, perspiring outside the front door. The sleuth who noticed it, a former FBI agent employed by Hollywood, suspected that video pirates were at work inside. The revved-up air conditioner, you see, would cool the scores of VCRs that counterfeiters use to churn out bootleg movies. A police raid last June at the Brooklyn address and 11 other New York City locations soon confirmed his suspicions. The catch: hundreds of VCRs and 100,000 illegally duplicated copies of the very latest Hollywood hits, from ""The Nutty Professor'' to ""The Rock'' to ""Twister.'' More important, the raids snared a clan of Israelis who, officials charge, ran the biggest video-piracy ring in America, pulling in some $500,000 a week. ...
  • Puffy's Piece Of The Pie

    LITTLE RICHARD. STEVIE WONDER. Whitney Houston. The names of African-American superstars come easily to mind. But the list of black music-business titans is sadly short: it pretty much starts and ends with Berry Gordy Jr., Motown founder. For an expaanding corps of twentysomething black hitmakers, the goal is to become the next Gordy--or, even better, the next David Geffen, the entertainment mogul who rode music to a billion-dollar fortune. As music man Sean (Puffy) Combs once said: ""We create the pie and get to keep the crust.'' Well, Combs has taken a big step toward the bakery. Last week he sealed a megadeal with Arista Records. The news comes at a difficult time for hip-hop music and Combs, who was unfairly linked in the press to the murder of rapper Tupac Shakur. ...
  • Blood On The Record Biz

    THE NEWS STORY didn't remotely concern rap music. Last Thursday, as the gangsta-rap star Tupac Shakur lay dying in a Las Vegas hospital, The New York Times ran a front-page piece on political fund raising in Hollywood. Yet on close review, an accompanying list of major showbiz contributors to the Democrats revealed rich ties to the sad history of 25-year-old Shakur. One was Frederick W. Field, a scion of the retailing empire Marshall Field and part owner of Interscope Records. It distributes Tupac's recordings on the Death Row label, whose hit CDs by the likes of Snoop Doggy Dogg have helped to fatten Field's net worth. Another link was Edgar Bronfman Jr., CEO of Seagram and chairman of MCA, half owner of Interscope. ...
  • The Disc Wars

    SILVERY, WAFER-THIN AND five inches wide, it could pass for a music CD. But this is no ordinary compact disc. To hear its most ardent promoters, it is almost magical, even transcendent. In its simplest model, it could play you seven hours of crystal-clear music, or bring you a library of $00-page novels, or let you see in lifelike detail the movie "Eraser," in PG-or R-rated versions, in English or in Spanish. And if the disc were copied 1,000 times, each duplicate would be as flawless as the original. Amazingly, the very same disc also can play on a variety of electronic gear. This remarkable product exists now, today. But you can't have it. ...
  • Time For A Tuneup

    FOR PURE STAR POWER, THE SCENE was hard to beat. On a ballroom stage at Disney World recently, ABC News paraded its most prized trophies before its new bosses at the Walt Disney Co., Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz, and a gathering of local TV-station owners. First up: Roone Arledge, the legendary news president. Diane Sawyer of "PrimeTime Live" offered greetings from New York over closed-circuit TV. "Nightline's" Ted Koppel, live onstage, grilled two big-time newsmakers on the big screen--President Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole. Next, Koppel moderated a panel that included Sam Donaldson and Barbara Walters. The show ended with indoor fireworks, a parading military flag corps and a singer belting out the national anthem. ...
  • Playing For Time

    WHEN TIME WARNER CEO GERALD Levin tapped Richard Parsons as president in late 1994, it seemed like an odd choice. A protege of the late Nelson Rockefeller, Parsons had been a senior public servant, a lawyer to blue bloods, a bank CEO-but never a show-business executive. Yet Parsons has dotted the Time Warner landscape. He's jetted to Denver with Levin to enlist cable boss John Malone in Time Warner's plan to buy Turner Broadcasting. He sold ownership control of the company's Six Flags theme parks for a much-needed bundle of cash. And Levin dispatched him to try to avert a showdown with partner U S West, which wanted to veto the Turner deal. ...
  • Forbes To Time Warner: Payback Time!

    ATTENTION, TIME Warner: it's payback time for that cover story Fortune magazine ran on the scion of the Forbes publishing empire, Steve, when he was running for the White House. Time Warner's Fortune exposed "shady land deals" and "aggressive tax avoidance" by the Forbes clan. Also, Fortune wrote, stories critical of advertisers are sometimes softened at the family-run business magazine. Now Time Warner insiders say Forbes will soon run a "major" piece on the company. And they insist it will be a hatchet job.That's probably a safe guess. The media giant was among the last to learn that a story was planned - usually a sign that the reporter won't be asking cheery questions. In fact, media rival Viacom first tipped off Time Warner officials. Finally, about two weeks ago, a Forbes reporter called to interview Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin. No thanks, Levin said. Other insiders, meanwhile, still don't know a story is coming. "I heard nothing about it," said Time Warner Editor in Chief...
  • Ted, You Ignorant Slut!

    FOR YEARS FORMER WALT Disney Co. studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg had occasional run-ins with his boss, CEO Michael Eisner. Among other things, the ambitious Katzenberg coveted the No. 2 job at Disney. So in 1994, when Eisner balked, Katzenberg quit. Things got tense. In interviews, Eisner said his ex-underling wasn't Disney presidential material. Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, observed that Katzenberg had been about as important to Disney as the feather that Dumbo the elephant thought was necessary for him to fly. Last week Katzenberg sued the company for at least $250 million, claiming it as his legal reward for years of success at Disney What a mess! ...
  • Trials Of A Black Mogul

    WAITING TO EXHALE," THE RECENT hit film about the love trials of four middle-class black women, bore all the marks of Hollywood. The movie, a Christmas release that opened on 1,253 screens nationwide, was based on a hot novelist's best seller and featured a star-studded cast (Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett) and a marvelous soundtrack (produced by hitmaker Babyface). Rupert Murdoch, Twentieth Century Fox boss and global media baron, is pleased: ticket sales now total more than $66 million. By contrast, few films could be as un-Hollywood as "Once Upon a Time ... When We Were Colored." Opened on 14 screens and directed by veteran TV actor/producer Tim Reid, the $2.6 million film tells a warm coming-of-age story of a black man in Glen Allan, Miss., in an era (1946 to 1962) when the Ku Klux Klan reigned in the segregated South. No big stars here. The box office now totals $1.1 million. So why is Robert Johnson, who controls Black Entertainment Television (BET), which owns half of the...
  • Is Tinseltown Really Racist? Read On

    ON THE EVE OF THE 1995 Oscars, the limos dropped off black actors and actresses at the elegant Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. The swanky affair was The Black Academy Awards, in honor of African-American talent snubbed by mainstream Hollywood. On Oscar night, while the top white stars and movie-industry titans uncorked the Dom Perignon at Drai's and Mortons, an A list of black stars including Denzel Washington and Angela Bassett retreated to Georgia's, black Hollywood's restaurant of choice-pleased that Samuel L. Jackson was nominated for his role in "Pulp Fiction." This year Georgia's isn't even throwing a bash. What's the use? As People magazine points out this week in a blistering cover story on the exclusion of blacks in Hollywood, only one African-American is among this year's 166 nominees. ...
  • The Friendly Giant

    FOR TIME WARNER, IT WAS a sweet prelude to Valentine's Day. Investors boosted the firm's shares by $2 after it reported stunning fourth-quarter profits. Word circulated of settlement talks in Time Warner's tiff with its erstwhile partner, U S West. President Clinton signed a bill deregulating the telecommunications industry, a move that could strengthen giants like Time Warner. Then came yet another bouquet: federal regulators let Walt Disney buy Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion. Would Time Warner chief Gerald Levin see that as a good omen for the company's proposed purchase of Turner Broadcasting? ...
  • Doing It His Way

    MONTHS AFTER VIACOM bought Paramount Communications and Blockbuster Entertainment in 1994, one amused magazine artist depicted chairman Sumner Redstone and CEO Frank Biondi as Beavis and Butt-head. Just like the cartoon characters on Viacom's MTV channel, the two seemed like the perfect partners. Together, they shrewdly acquired Blockbuster, which helped Viacom win a takeover battle for Paramount and capture a place in the entertainment big leagues with Time Warner, Disney and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. And things only got better. Soon after the acquisition, Paramount produced the jumbo hit "Forrest Gump?' But to paraphrase Forrest, "life is like a box of never know what's inside." Last week Wall Street and Hollywood learned what was going on inside Viacom's executive suite. Redstone's Butt-head, in characteristically abrupt fashion, cut Biondi's Beavis at the knees, and crowned himself CEO. ...
  • Barney's: It Couldn't Happen To A Nicer Store

    The Congratulations Arrived Thursday afternoon, minutes, after the stunning news that Barney s, the snooty New York high-fashion chain, is in financial distress. "You're not dressing as nicely, but it looks like your boycott finally paid off," said a friend. Boycotting Barney's? Sure thing. In fact, I hope to dance on its grave. Happy Bankruptcy, guys. Oh, sorry for calling it bankruptcy. It's actually Chapter 11--court protection that lets corporate deadbeats force their creditors into settling for pennies on the dollars owed them. (Barney's vows to pay in full.) Financial woes fit you like one of the exquisite $2,300 Giorgio Armani suits in your Madison Avenue and Beverly Hills stores. ...
  • A Piece Of The Action

    Black entrepreneurs are battling for ownership of the lucrative assets they produce for the music business. But will their continued reliance on big record companies -- and persistent violence in parts of the rap world -- stall the dream for some of them ...
  • Murdoch Vs. Turner Redux

    Software types call it "vaporware." A company announces a new product that may never--or much lat-er--see the light of day. The aim: to spook the market, befuddle rivals or cause customers to hold off buying the other guy's goods. Now from global media mogul Rupert Murdoch comes vapor news. In a speech last week, Murdoch declared his intention to launch a 24-hour-a-day news channel to rival Turner Broadcasting's Cable News Network. Yeah, sure, even his own advisers seemed to sigh. "That's his long-term goal," fudged a spokeswoman, adding that there was no one available to discuss the notion. ...
  • One More Stab At It

    Talk about management style. When Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin sat down Thursday for his usual weekly chat with Michael Fuchs, chief of Warner Music and HBO, Levin said he wanted to talk about his new strategy for the media colossus, say company insiders. He conjured up a complementary triangle of entertainment, news and information, and telecommunications. Levin's buzzword of choice was "triangulation." ...
  • What, Me Worry?

    In showbiz, Michael Jackson has excelled as much at the biz as he has dazzled onstage. A decade ago, at his peak, he had the foresight to buy hundreds of songs written by the Beatles. Now comes Act II. Within days, Jackson plans to merge his Beatles collection, and other songs, with Sony Music. The aim: to create another titan of music publishing. Jackson would own half of the new company-- and Sony would pay him at least $100 million. ...
  • Time's Uneasy Pieces

    No one imagined it would be easy conceiving the globe's biggest media company. But no one realized how tough it was until last Friday. On a rain-drenched day in New York, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin and Turner chairman Ted Turner announced the latest birth in this fertile season of megamedia deals. They had endured five weeks of haggling to win the blessing of cable titan John Malone of Tele-Communications Inc., Turner's largest outside shareholder. But Malone wasn't the only hurdle. When the Turner board met late Thursday, two members protested Malone's sweetheart side deals. Now they might sue. Take a number. Hours before Levin and Turner stepped before the cameras, telephone giant U S West, Time Warner's erstwhile partner, sued to block the proposed union. ...
  • Foxes In The Chicken Coop

    These guys are going to be partners? Just last year Ted Turner whined that Time Warner, which owns a large chunk of Turner Broadcasting System, was preventing him from buying a network like CBS. John Malone, the Tele-Communications Inc. chief who also controls a big stake in Turner Broadcasting, has always enjoyed keeping Ted on a tight leash. Meanwhile, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin has long been wary of wheeler-dealer Malone. ...
  • Now Batting Second

    On Friday morning superagent Michael Ovitz prepared for a conference call in his art-filled office at Creative Artists Agency, the legendary talent-supply house. The subject: the affairs of his new employer, the Wait Disney Co. As he awaited the call, Ovitz thought aloud about an upcoming trip to scout sites for Disney theme parks and entertainment complexes in Florida and Europe. "We are kicking around some great ideas," he said enthusiastically. Elsewhere in CAA's Beverly Hills headquarters, though, a dozen or so agents and executives were kicking around ideas of a very different sort. Quickly, they must show agents and stars that the departure of Hollywood's best-known agent won't destroy the company he built. The tone was not enthusiasm but worry. Said Ray Kurtzman, CAA's business chief, "It's harried around here."In Hollywood, as at CAA, an abrupt transition is underway. The entire entertainment industry is remaking itself in a frenzy of mergers, jolting job changes and...
  • The Men Behind The Megadeals

    Investment banker Herbert A. Allen Jr.'s annual mogulfest in July drew the usual mix of Hollywood and Wall Street media barons, packed wallet to wallet amid Sun Valley, Idaho's verdant mountain vistas. Addressing the opening session was Seagram boss Edgar Bronfman Jr., the ink barely dry on the $5.7 billion cheek that he wrote for MCA in June. Returning, too, was billionaire Sumner Redstone of Viacom, who gobbled up Paramount and Blockbuster within months of Allen's 1994 power pow-wow. The $15 billion man, Microsoft's Bill Gates, showed up. With so many titans in attendance, a leisurely walk could, and did, lead to something monumental. On a stroll along Wildflower Street, Disney Co.'s Michael Eisner bumped into Tom Murphy, the chief of Capital Cities/ABC, who was on his way to play golf with Warren Buffett, Cap Cities' biggest shareholder. "Hey, Tom, do you think it's time for our companies to get together?" Eisner asked. Murphy answered: "Sounds good. Let's go talk to Buffett....
  • Kids Will Be Kids

    Couch Spuds Had No Reason to expect gripping television when two TV networks--United Paramount Network and the Warner Bros. Network--were launched earlier this year. Both barely had a staff in place. And they aired over a patchwork of TV stations, in many cases on different nights. To no one's surprise, both nets met the low expectations. Some shows were downright silly. (How does a sit-corn about a cable cooking-show host strike you?) And UPN and WB have lost millions.What's surprising is that the upstarts remain in so much turmoil after six months in the network business. UPN is replacing three of its four shows for the fall. And WB, hoping for a miracle hit, is sticking with most of its duds, in part to save money. Things are even messy off-screen. Both nets are trading potshots, dissing everything from their rival's managers to their vapid shows. Behind the scenes at UPN, the plot twist is more enticing. Insiders say there's a backstabbing clash between network boss Lucie...
  • The Morning After

    Lavish contracts are as much a part of the Hollywood landscape as moviemaking. But maybe someone forgot to inform Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose family-controlled Seagram Co. acquired entertainment giant MCA Inc. Early last Monday, just hours before Seagram officially became the owner of 80 percent of MCA, Bronfman cut off talks with Hollywood superagent Michael Ovitz, whose escalating demands tested Bronfman's patience.Bronfman and Ovitz were destined to become partners, or so it was scripted in the Hollywood gossip mill. Ovitz, majority owner of the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency, and a Bronfman buddy for almost a decade, was the Seagram CEO's top choice to head MCA. The beverage company had bet $5.7 billion that MCA could become a global entertainment juggernaut--and Ovitz was the man who was going to help get the job done. But the agent pushed and pushed Bronfman to sweeten the deal. And in the process, said several sources familiar with the negotiations, Ovitz blew a one-of-a...
  • King Of The Deal

    For Michael Ovitz, it was all too ironic. Five years ago, on Thanksgiving eve, the Japanese were poised for another landing in their so-called invasion of Hollywood. Negotiators for MCA--owner of the famed Universal Studios, the creator of such blockbusters as "E.T."--thought they had a deal. But Ovitz, the superagent who doubles as Hollywood's ultimate dealmaker, was advising mighty Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., the consumer-electronics multinational. He told them to refuse to pay what the Americans wanted. Too much, Ovitz said, and he and his aides walked out of the talks in New York and flew back to Los Angeles for leisurely turkey dinners. The brinkmanship almost went too far, for MCA balked. To save the deal, Matsushita and MCA asked Robert Strauss, the smooth-talking Democratic power broker, to mediate. With the help of Strauss's suave diplomacy, the $6.59 billion merger was sealed, despite the nip-and-tuck finish. Ovitz reportedly collected a $40 million fee.Now, Ovitz...
  • Rupert's New Road To The Internet

    MICHAEL MEYERRupert Murdoch is nothing if not a gambler. He flies against conventional wisdom, and his daring usually pays off. A decade ago Hollywood scoffed when the Australian-born publishing magnate bought a string of television stations and called them a network. Today, Fox Broadcasting is threatening to turn the Big Three into the Big Four. Skeptics also looked askance at Sky Television, the money-losing British satellite service that helped drive Murdoch to the verge of bankruptcy. When he took the company public last December, it was valued at a whopping $6 billion. Last week Murdoch placed another big bet: MCI Communications Corp., the second largest U.S. long-distance company, agreed to invest as much as $2 billion in his holding company, News Corp. The partners want to do more than create yet another big entertainment, information and telecommunications empire. They aim to dominate the Information Highway.Does the world really need another New Media megadeal? Many...