When it comes to joint ventures, the Walt Disney Company has not proven very adept. Clumsy would be a better word, although some would argue arrogant. Take, for example, the soon-to-be-defunct partnership between Disney and computer magazine publisher Ziff-Davis Inc. on Family PC. On Dec. 3, Disney’s acting publishing chief, Tom Conforti, announced in a memo to his unit’s employees that Disney is pulling out of the nearly four-year collaboration. But Ziff-Davis executives knew nothing about the decision, sources told Off the Record; they only learned about their erstwhile partner’s plans when someone at Disney sent them the memo.
“It has become increasingly clear to us that Family PC is, above all, a computer magazine and, consequently, increasingly a Ziff-Davis-controlled business, one that is core to their strategy,” Mr. Conforti wrote in the memo. “In fact, we had reached the point where we were simply funding the magazine with no real involvement-and that’s just not what we do.”
A miffed Ziff-Davis put out its own internal memo on Dec. 4, repeating much of Mr. Conforti’s words verbatim and stressing that Ziff-Davis will continue publishing the magazine.
For Disney to pull out now, just as the magazine is starting to return money to its investors, seems odd. Both partners have already poured more than $10 million each into the magazine, according to sources at both companies, and 1998 will be Family PC’ s first profitable year. Abruptly ending the relationship makes Disney’s recouping any portion of its investment unlikely.
According to magazine sources, Disney’s move was not based on money, but control. Disney’s say in the direction of the magazine had been dwindling. And ever since its main proponent, Family Fun founder Jake Winebaum, went off to run Disney Online, Family PC no longer had a champion at Disney. (The current publisher and editor in chief of the magazine, Robin Raskin, comes from Ziff-Davis.)
Mr. Conforti is a financial guy, most recently a chief financial officer of Disney Consumer Products, which looks after all the licensed tchotchkes in addition to publishing. He moved to New York from Burbank, Calif., this past summer to temporarily run the division while looking for a new publishing chief. (John Skipper, the former vice president of publishing, had gone off to run the upcoming ESPN Magazine , and his replacement as magazine division head, Paul Hoffman, left for Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.) Magazine sources say Mr. Conforti doesn’t understand the intricacies of the computer industry, a necessity if an executive wants to have an intelligent say in Family PC’ s future.
With Family PC gone from Disney’s publishing stable, the job of magazine division head just became even smaller. At first, when Mr. Conforti moved here, there was talk the Disney Publishing job would oversee not only Disney’s books and magazines, as Mr. Skipper did, but Fairchild Publications, the home of Jane, Women’s Wear Daily and W . That plan went nowhere. Then, books were stripped out of the portfolio and given to Hyperion publisher Robert Miller. Now there are only four magazines left: the solidly profitable Discover, Family Fun, the money-losing Disney Adventures and Disney Magazine , which has no pretense to editorial objectivity-it just hypes Disney merchandise. In his nearly six months in New York, Mr. Conforti has had no luck peddling the job. The three candidates he most liked all rebuffed his advances, industry sources said. Greg Coleman stayed at Reader’s Digest ; former Condé Nast executive Michael Clinton went to Hearst Magazines; Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia executive David Steward took the president’s job at TV Guide .
Mr. Conforti declined to speak to Off the Record.
New Yorker theater critic John Lahr raved about Triumph of Love in the pages of the magazine more than a month before the October opening on Broadway. He raved about the musical on CNN last spring after seeing it in an out-of-town tryout. And The New Yorker even sent a discount-ticket offer to its subscribers that contained Mr. Lahr’s words raving about the show. But what Mr. Lahr has failed to mention in all his hyping is that he is a good friend of the producer of the show, Margo Lion, so much so that he even recused himself from reviewing the play.
That didn’t stop Mr. Lahr from penning these words to accompany a photo in the magazine’s Showcase column of Sept. 22: “The battle between heart and head gets a smart, funny twist in Triumph of Love , a seven-character musical reworking of Marivaux’s 1732 comedy.” And “the musical’s fresh combination of high jinks and high style-it could be called ‘Nonsense and Sensibility’-earned it standing ovations during tryouts in Baltimore and New Haven.” (The New Yorker letter to subscribers misquoted Mr. Lahr’s words, conflating all his praise into “a smart, fresh and funny combination of high jinks and high style!” As Off the Record reported last week, the magazine also mangled the words of their other theater critic, Nancy Franklin.)
On CNN back in May, Mr. Lahr bemoaned the quality of Broadway musicals. But there was one bright spot on the horizon. “The best musical I have seen this year is Triumph of Love , and that hasn’t come into town,” he said. When it did arrive on Broadway, Mr. Lahr went as Ms. Lion’s guest on opening night.
Ms. Lion said she has known Mr. Lahr for 17 years, and that there was nothing untoward about Mr. Lahr writing about the show. “He’s a friend of mine-period,” Ms. Lion said. “He’s a man of incredible integrity. This is just a tempest in a teapot. He’s writing about things he believes in.”
Mr. Lahr, who makes his home in London, could not be reached for comment. But New Yorker deputy editor Pamela Maffei McCarthy said that Mr. Lahr was asked to write the September puff piece and that the magazine saw no conflict of interest. “Showcase, to my mind, is quite a separate thing than a review,” Ms. McCarthy said. “It seemed like it would be an incredible twisting out of our natural shape to go off and find someone else to do it.”
New York 1 reporters assigned to cover the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade this year didn’t realize they were on a covert mission. But broadcasting the shopping monolith’s holiday festivities was more like playing James Bond than Jimmy Olsen.
The tension stemmed from a sponsorship agreement that New York 1 cut with Kmart, involving promotional acknowledgments and commercials during the station’s coverage of the parade. Kmart paid between $10,000 and $15,000 for the ads. “According to my sales folks, Macy’s knew that Kmart was involved, and they were told, ‘By all means, sell it to Kmart,’” said Steve Paulus, vice president of news at New York 1. But then, Mr. Paulus said, about 10 days before “Inflation Eve” (the traditional balloon blowing in Central Park the night before the parade), Macy’s informed the news station that because of its deal with Kmart, the department store would not be able to countenance the broadcast. Mr. Paulus was surprised by the reaction from Macy’s. “Tell me who is not a competitor to Macy’s,” he said. “They sell everything in that store. They sell delicatessen meats in the Cellar. Is Zabar’s a competitor then?”
Macy’s essentially put the kibosh on an hourlong special on the balloon inflation and made it hard for New York 1 to cover the parade by not giving reporters access to parade organizers. But New York 1 decided to give it a go, anyway. The result: parking-space disputes, interview requests denied and constant walkie-talkie surveillance by flacks for Macy’s.
The troubles began from the moment the New York 1 van arrived at the media parking space on 81st Street and Central Park West, early on the evening of Nov. 26. According to a New York 1 reporter, a representative of Macy’s tried to shoo the news team away. “Even though CBS and NBC were already there, Macy’s told [the reporting team] they could not park there,” the reporter said. “To which the truck driver said, ‘Forget it, we’re parking here.’” New York 1 then attempted to take its cameras to designated areas for live shots but was barred from access.
The intransigence continued into the next day. When the station contacted Macy’s for a comment on a major parade accident-a bystander hit by a falling lamppost-they said they received no response. (Reps for Macy’s denied ever being contacted at all.) And the Macy’s parade staff refused to give New York 1 reporters assistance, which, according to news sources, ranged from being frozen out of interviews with Jean McFaddin, the event’s organizer, to more picayune details like mysteriously unavailable press packets.
Ronnie Taffet, a Macy’s spokesman, claimed that Macy’s has a standing “agreement” with all parade broadcasters that bars them from using retail competitors as commercial sponsors. When New York 1 failed to respect this “agreement,” she said, “Macy’s decided not to accommodate New York 1.”
Mr. Paulus said there may have been an informal agreement with Macy’s, but never anything in writing. “Although they were probably less than cooperative, I understand their point of view,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with it. [But] they are a ubiquitous presence in New York, as we are, and we’ll be working together in the future.”