Johnnie L.

Stories by Johnnie L. Roberts

  • Now Playing At The Box Office Up The Dial, I Want

    Couch potatoes are getting restless. Another TV season has ended, marked by the slew of series finales in the past two weeks. Now television goes on summer break, filling time with tired reruns. And don't look for a lively fall, judging from the lineups recently unveiled by the broadcast networks--just lots of teen-show clones, plus SOS (same old sitcoms). Think a monkey could create a better TV schedule? Further up the cable-TV dial, that's just what you'll see. Next week TBS premieres "The Chimp Channel," a series featuring monkeys who run a TV station. "Summer's boldest move," applauds Mediaweek. TNT, a TBS sibling, is also betting big on animals. In October, it airs "Animal Farm," a $22 million production of the George Orwell classic. ...
  • Cable-Hungry Ma Bell Turns Hostile

    Reach out and bear-hug someone. If there was any lingering doubt that Ma Bell is undergoing a dramatic makeover, it should have been dispelled by a startling move last Thursday. AT&T's CEO, Michael Armstrong, mailed a hostile $58 billion cash-and-stock offer late that day to MediaOne, a cable-television giant already at the altar after a $48 billion proposal from Comcast Inc. in March. In only 17 months at AT&T's helm, Armstrong has launched two huge bids for cable companies. This year he completed the first, the $48 billion purchase of Tele-Communications Inc., the No. 2 cable operator.Why the frenzy? In the last two years, cable's coaxial pipeline has emerged as the communications highway of choice for everything from Internet connections to phone calls to, of course, television programming. AT&T reportedly had been studying a takeover of MediaOne when Comcast swooped down with its deal. That was when AT&T decided to try to disconnect its call.
  • Out Of The Box

    The top executives at ABC had flown out to Aspen to meet with their boss, Disney CEO Michael Eisner. A key item on the agenda: reviewing their plans for the network in the world of new media. They told Eisner about how ABCnews.com had grown, and about how ESPN, ABC's cable-sports empire, had become a hot cyberspace destination. They talked about synchronizing the upcoming Oscars broadcast with Oscars activities on the Web. But while they didn't know it then, the most telling demonstration of the network's leap into cyberspace was taking place as they were eating dinner at Eisner's mountainside vacation home on March 3. As the participants plowed through a buffet, they watched Barbara Walters's interview with Monica Lewinsky, along with the 70 million other viewers who tuned in at one time or another. And of those viewers, 1.5 million also logged on to the ABC.com Web site to fish for more dish on the scandal, vote in a poll or demand to know the shade of Monica's lipstick. It all...
  • Cable's Quiet Mogul

    Brian Roberts began tagging along with his father on Saturdays to the family cable-television business, Comcast Inc., when he was 8, almost 32 years ago. But he didn't fully grasp cable's powerful appeal until many years later when his dad, Ralph, packed him off to help run the Comcast system in Flint, Mich. Although one of every five Flint residents was jobless, customers kept signing up for Comcast's 35 channels. "It taught me that cable was recession-proof," Roberts, now Comcast's president, recalls.His appreciation of the power of cable became monumentally evident last week. In a deal eclipsing even AT&T's purchase of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc., Philadelphia-based Comcast sealed a $60 billion agreement to buy MediaOne. The combination will create the second largest cable operator, with $8 billion in annual revenue and 11 million subscribers. Comcast also gets MediaOne's 25 percent stake in Time Warner's HBO and Warner Bros. studio, to add to its majority stake in...
  • The Rap On Rap

    HERE'S A TALE OF ONE RECORD label. When Def Jam was founded 15 years ago, rap was an inventive new sound from black urban America. To the captains of the music industry, it was an inner-city fad with limited appeal--but just in case, they would keep an eye on it by buying chunks of the brassy production house. Over the ensuing half-generation, the label managed to turn out stars like LL Cool J, Public Enemy and, briefly, the Beastie Boys, rap's first white group. Now Russell Simmons, its chairman and a pioneering rap impresario, has arrived at a momentous point. He and a few insiders are poised to sell their remaining 40 percent interest in Def Jam. ...
  • America In The Balance

    Day two of the November trial brought promising news. On a pay phone just outside a federal courtroom in New York, lawyers for PolyGram called Alain Levy, CEO of the global entertainment empire. At last, serious settlement talks were underway to en d the heated donnybrook among PolyGram and its Island Records company; the label's top black executive; its hot-selling R&B quartet, Dru Hill, and the group's managers. What a mess it had all become--allegations of violence, a clumsy racial slur by PolyG ram's U.S. president, Jesse Jackson's wrath raining down on the company. ...
  • Can Mgm Roar Again?

    IT WAS EARLY ON OCT. 13. MGM/UA'S top bosses were preoccupied with plans to sell a chunk of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., the moribund studio's parent, to the public. Suddenly a bombshell dropped. Bond, James Bond--Agent 007 in 20 films, 18 by MGM/UA, with a box office topping $1 billion--had been ambushed. Sony Pictures had just announced plans for Sony Bond movies. A celluloid double agent! Just as MGM was about to tout the debonair, martini-sipping Bond to investors as one of its most valuable, one-of-a-kind assets.After eleventh-hour maneuverings, MGM last week squeezed the offering through shaky financial markets, netting just $250 million--about the cost of one out-of-control movie production. In today's Hollywood moviemaking is for the fearless rich or the certifiably insane. Costs are soaring; profits are mostly nil. At Time Warner and the other behemoths that dominate entertainment, theme parks, cable networks and retail chains fatten the bottom line, not movies. At MGM the...
  • Grabbing At A Dead Star

    RAP STAR TUPAC SHAKUR'S ASHES had hardly cooled before the gold rush began. Now, almost a year after his death, his mother is defending the estate from an old lover who turned up to prove he's Topaz's father. An Arkansas court has already awarded $16.6 million to a woman who was shot at a Topaz concert. Until a tentative settlement last week, Topaz's label, Death Row Records, was demanding a $7 million slice, and its imprisoned CEO wanted millions more. Even C. Delores Tucker, the gangster rap foe, wants a chunk. She and her husband claim that a lyrical attack by Tupac iced their sex life. ""It's like being on a ship and watching pirates trying to loot it,'' says attorney Richard Fischbein, who administers the estate with Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur. ...
  • Hit The Eject Button

    AMONG ARGENTINES, THE late First Lady Eva Peron stirred heated emotions. Now the marketing of ""Evita,'' Hollywood's video-bound take on her life, is stoking long-simmering tensions in the U.S. home-video business. The industry hot zone is your family room, where movie-viewing options are multiplying. As a result, the local video store is heatedly demanding a longer exclusive on movies before they appear in rival formats. And ""Evita'' the video, which Walt Disney Home Video will release this week, has become the latest flash point. Blockbuster, though it won't say so openly, is halving what would have been its optimum order of ""Evita.'' It's retaliation against Disney for granting video dealers only a 30-day exclusive ""window'' in which to rent the video before the movie becomes available on pay-per-view - about half the typical run. ...
  • Rupert's Team

    Rupert Murdoch wears many hats: billionaire, media baron, TV and cable impresario. Now he's building a global sports empire - making deals at a feverish pace and, as is his wont, paying top dollar for the jewels that catch his eye. ...
  • Farewell, Pretoria

    WHEN PEPSI RETURNED TO POST-partheid South Africa, it arrived pop diva Whitney Houston. late 1994, Pepsi cosponsored her charity tour. But the bigger news, which Pepsi Co gleefully trumpeted, was that Houston was a new ally in its global cola wars with Coca-Cola; she had invested in a new venture to reintroduce Pepsi to South Africa. Pepsi had withdrawn from South Africa in 1985 in protest of its racist policies, to the delight of African-Americans and antiapartheid activists. With Houston in its camp, Pepsi was now casting itself as "the choice of the new generation of South Africans." But it wasn't. Last month Pepsi--tens of millions of dollars in the hole after being crushed by Coke--abandoned the market again. ...
  • The Fair-Haired Banker

    THE SIGHT OF THE DUO STARTLED even the business elite who power-lunch daily at New York's 21 Club. There, two weeks ago, at his usual conspicuous table, sat Felix Rohatyn, the illustrious rainmaker of the famed Wall Street investment-banking firm Lazard Freres. Opposite him sat Steven Rattner, Lazard's baby-boomer dealmaking star, Clinton friend and savvy media darling who started out writing for The New York Times. Once mentor and protege, they had crossed each other in Lazard's sharp-elbowed culture. The feud had splashed onto a magazine cover. But that was then. Now a genuinely warmhearted goodbye lunch was in order. Rohatyn is ending his banking career fittingly, heading off to Paris for the cushy job of United States ambassador to France. And before Memorial Day, Rattner was promoted to deputy CEO of Lazard, New York, by the firm's owner, Michel David-Weill. ...
  • 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? ...