Johnnie L.

Stories by Johnnie L. Roberts

  • 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...
  • Goliath Goes Hollywood

    Long ago, there was the sovereign state of ITT. International Telephone and Telegraph, as the company was formally known, bestrode the globe. It was the very embodiment of the ruthless '60s multinational corporation, a powerful conglomerate that controlled more than 250 companies spanning almost every business and industry. ITT was accused of plotting coups in Chile, and lobbying down-and-dirty in Washington. Hollywood never captured those nefarious exploits for the silver screen. Yet now, in a tamer era, when the company is better known for its holdings in Sheraton Hotels and Hartford Insurance, ITT itself is going Hollywood.Just as ITT once muscled its way through the corridors of power, it is today carving out a new empire in leisure and entertainment. Already this year the giant has spent almost $3 billion on high-profile acquisitions. It bought giant Caesars World Inc., owner of casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Then came Madison Square Garden, home to basketball's Knicks...
  • Changing Channels

    ON THE FINAL DAY OF THE 1994 Winter Olympics, aired live on CBS from Lillehammer, Howard Stringer slipped on ice and broke his leg. For the network's to broadcast exec, it was a painful omen of the lame season to come. Already, Rupert Murdoch's feisty Fox network had snagged the rights to the National Football League games, broadcast by CBS for nearly 40 years. Later in the summer Fox stole away eight regional CBS affiliates. About the same time, the network's top entertainment executive quit. Now CBS has abruptly plummeted in prime-time ratings, after three straight seasons on top. Billionaire Laurence Tisch, who controls CBS, didn't even bother to conceal his desire to sell the company, and kept pressuring Stringer to cut the "fat" from budgets that were already lean. All in all, says Stringer, "I wasn't exactly thrilled with the year." ...
  • Chips Off The Block

    FEW WALL STREETERS dispute that Sumner Redstone snared one of the nation's premier companies when he purchased Blockbuster Entertainment last year. In a mere 10 years, thousands of the bright and vast video stores have sprouted nationwide. The chain's 50 million members rent one out of every five of the estimated 4.6 billion videos rented each year. And despite predictions that Blockbuster would soon become a relic in the Information Superhighway era, investors -and executives at Redstone's Viacom Inc.-say the company will continue to boom. "This is really one of the great marketing successes of the 20th century," says money manager Larry Haverty of State Street Research & Management, a big shareholder in Viacom, the owner of MTV, book publisher Simon & Schuster and Paramount. ...
  • Nbc And Turner: Here They Go Again

    Breaking off seems so hard to do for NBC and Turner Broadcasting. After ambling toward the altar for months, Ted Turner spurned a proposal from NBC's parent. General Electric. in January -- largely because GE wanted to maintain control. Now the two companies have reached out to each other again. Sources say low-level operatives recently tried to determine whether thoro's wiggle room to resume formal talks. A Turner spokesman says the two sides aren't talking, while NBC wouldn't comment. ...
  • Betting The House On Cable

    BY MANY MEASURES, LIFE IS good for Time Warner chief Gerald M. Levin. Last week the company and its partner, Toshiba, appeared to win their battle for a new compact-videodisc standard that could displace the home video. And last Friday, Levin plopped down $2.2 billion in stock and debt for another collection of cable-TV systems. Also, he has managed to placate some of his bigest shareholders including, for now, the largest and most threatening, Seagram and its CEO, Edgar Bronfman Jr. ...
  • Are They Jackin' The Box?

    AFTER DIALING A 900 NUMBER AND punching in a three-digit code on the phone keypad, a teenager setback on his bed to gawk at the video he has just requested with a $3 call. In minutes, thong-bikini-clad women fill the TV screen. Close-ups of jiggling buttocks flash by as the curvy women thrust their hips to fast music. Amid all the flesh, a smirking Luther Campbell--best known for his R-rated rap group 2 Live Crewsings his latest hit, "It's Your Birthday." ...