As chairman and chief executive officer of the multi-billion dollar Walt Disney Productions, Michael Eisner (born 1942) is one of the most highly visible business leaders in the United States. With his impressive management skills, Eisner has become the leader of a vast communications and entertainment empire.
Eisner was born in Mount Kisco, New York on March 7, 1942. His father, Lester Eisner, was a lawyer and administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. His mother, Margaret Eisner, was a co-founder of the American Safety Razor Company. Young Michael grew up in the family's apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Although his surroundings were luxurious, Eisner was required to read two hours for every hour of television he watched. His television viewing was strictly rationed and carefully controlled. His was not a pampered childhood. Eisner attended Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He began his college career with an interest in medicine but eventually switched to English literature and theater. During his summer vacation, Eisner worked as a page at the NBC television network in New York.
After graduation Eisner returned to NBC as a logging clerk, keeping track of television programs. Within a few weeks, he moved to the programming department at CBS, where he was responsible for placing commercials in the right places in children's programs. He didn't enjoy this work, so he mailed out hundreds of job resumes to various entertainment companies, including Walt Disney. He received one response.
Diller was Impressed
ABC's Barry Diller was impressed with Eisner's resume. He knew his company needed bright young executives like Eisner, and he wanted to bring him on board. Diller convinced his board that Eisner should be the assistant to the national programming director at ABC, and Eisner jumped at the chance. He held the ABC job from 1966 to 1968.
During his time at ABC, Eisner married his wife, Jane, also known as "Tasty." Meanwhile, he began to show his real skills by producing a television special called "Feelin' Groovy at Marine World." The show was a success and in 1968 Eisner was promoted to manager of specials and talent, a job he held for less than a year before he was promoted to director of program development for the East Coast. This job made him responsible for Saturday morning children's programming, including animated programs based on the popular singing groups, the Jackson Five and the Osmond Brothers.
Advancement at ABC
Eisner continued to climb in the entertainment business. In 1971, he became ABC's vice president for daytime programming. He promoted the vastly popular soap operas, All My Children and One Life to Live. Three years later, Eisner was promoted to vice president for program planning and development, and then became senior vice president for prime time production and development. It was Eisner who created such programs as Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Barney Miller, and Starsky and Hutch. Thanks to the contribution of Eisner, ABC was able to move into first place in the network ratings, surpassing both CBS and NBC.
Eisner was on his way to the top. His old mentor from ABC, Barry Diller, had moved to Paramount Pictures as chairman of the board. In 1976, Diller offered Eisner the position of president and chief operating officer at Paramount. Eisner accepted and brought to his new job some of the cost-cutting lessons he had learned in network television. At that time, the average cost of making a motion picture was about twelve million dollars. Eisner's average cost at Paramount was only eight million. Despite reduced costs, Paramount moved from last to first place among the six major studios. Half of the top ten box office hits were Paramount pictures, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Heaven Can Wait, Ordinary People, Terms of Endearment, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Elephant Man, Reds, Flashdance, Footloose, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop, Airplane, and three of the Star Trek motion pictures. It would be difficult to create a list of motion pictures with more power, entertainment value, and audience attraction.
Walt Disney Company
In 1966, Walt Disney died. It was a loss of epic proportions for the entertainment world. An award-winning editorial cartoon that appeared in many newspapers was a drawing of the earth, with mouse ears and a tear running down. Audiences who had grown to love the work of Disney wondered what would happen to his pleasant, G-rated films and the theme parks he created. After the death of Walt, many in the industry felt that the Disney Company lacked leadership and direction.
Eisner left Paramount Pictures to become chairman and chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company in September 1984. He replaced Hollywood super agent Michael Ovitz, who received a severance package worth about $90 million. Eisner signed a seven year contract extension worth about $250 million. Stockholders felt he was worth it. In only a few years, he was able to transform the company from an organization that lacked direction into an industry leader. Eisner also exercised stock options worth more than $229 million, with more options available to him. The studio quickly turned out several new animated features including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Every one of them was a huge success and earned millions of dollars for the Disney Company.
Eisner was considered to be the savior of Disney-the Prince who had awakened the Sleeping Beauty. Disney stock soared. Eisner had revived the Magic Kingdom. During that time, perhaps in part due to Eisner's love of hockey, Disney made the decision to join the National Hockey League by launching "The Mighty Ducks," named after a well known Disney motion picture. In May 1966, Disney acquired an interest in and became the general partner of major league baseball's "California Angels" later renamed the "Anaheim Angels." It was common to see Eisner wearing either a Mighty Ducks' or an Angels' baseball cap, and to be seen at the rink or the baseball stadium. Disney increased its participation in several other sports under Eisner's leadership. Golf, big time motor racing, soccer, marathon races and other sports were soon under the Disney umbrella, and in many cases were sponsored by Disney.
Work in Progress
In his book Work in Progress, Eisner said, "At a certain level, what we do at Disney is very simple. We set our goals, we aim for perfection, inevitably fall short, try to learn from our mistakes, and hope that our successes will continue to outnumber our failures. Above all, we tell stories, in the hope that they will entertain, inform, and engage."
The Disney Company continued to market its various theme parks, including Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida, and even built a massive new park near Paris called Euro Disney. But initial returns from the European park were disappointing. Low attendance brought a nearly one billion dollar loss in the first year. Plans to construct a huge historical park outside Washington, DC, were suddenly canceled. As if to counter these disappointments, he announced that Disney was acquiring his old company, Capital Cities, owners of the ABC television network. As CEO of Disney, Eisner had become the leader of a communications and entertainment empire without equal.
Further Reading on Michael Eisner
Eisner, Michael. Work in Progress.
Michael Eisner Interview, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/eis0int-1
Message from Michael Eisner, http://www.penguin.co.uk/readme/bookaut/Eisner/message.html