Bob Iger Rules TV … With Help From Regis

Bob Iger, the handsome, gleaming, departing head of ABC, sat at a center table in the vast Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom on Feb. 10 as Regis Philbin, in a double-breasted, charcoal-gray pinstripe suit, began pelting the air with insults directed at the new president of the Walt Disney Company.

Why did he get the appointment?

“Because he was lucky enough to be president of ABC when Millionaire was put on the air,” said Mr. Philbin. Then, accompanied by ABC News correspondent Barry Mitchell on the accordion, Mr. Philbin launched into a parody of “Pennies From Heaven” describing how Who Wants to Be a Millionaire had thrown ABC from third to first place in the prime-time ratings war.

It wasn’t quite music, it wasn’t quite entertainment, but it made the house happy. Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung–along with Mr. Iger’s wife, CNN’s Moneyline News Hour anchor Willow Bay–roared with approval. After years in the wilderness and long controversy after its acquisition by Disney, ABC not only had success for the first time in years, but a graduating executive moving into the first place of succession in the parent company.

“What can I really say about you, Regis?” said Mr. Iger, who was celebrating his 49th birthday. “Regis, you are the man. I got my job because of you, ABC is No. 1 because of you, Disney earnings are what they are because of you, our stock price is what it is because of you … what is your agent’s name again?”

The Grand Ballroom roared for Disney’s new subchief, heading off to Los Angeles from his little offices near Columbus Avenue. But Mr. Iger wasn’t completely kidding; as Cosby did for NBC in the 1980′s, Millionaire was a single hit that hoisted up a network and generally remade its executives’ profiles. Mr. Iger had long been expected to be named president and chief operating officer of Disney, but the expectation began to fade along with ABC’s fortunes after the network was acquired by Disney in 1995.

In his new position, he will have to not only navigate Disney through a technological rearranging of the media landscape–but also live with the hulking, domineering presence of Michael Eisner, the 6-foot-3 chief executive of Disney whose dispatch of other lurking executives–Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Ovitz–had been violent enough to threaten his own absolute power at the Happiest Place on Earth.

But still, there he was: Bob Iger. Bob Iger, the former apprentice to ABC-Capital Cities founder Tom Murphy who survived the Disney purchase to become, one could argue, the biggest winner on Millionaire . And whose trip west is in no small part testament to the power of the network television hit–still a thunderclap event even in the age of the Internet.

Mr. Iger almost says so himself, though he cautions against overstating it. Mr. Eisner first talked to Mr. Iger, then head of ABC, about coming into Disney as his No. 2 in May 1998.

“It didn’t seem to make sense at that point,” Mr. Iger said during a morning interview with The Observer . “One reason was that it wouldn’t have worked for me personally: My wife had just gotten pregnant and wanted to have her first child in New York, and I had a daughter who was still in high school in New York. And Michael and I also talked about the perception of ABC being in third place and my being named president. I’m not suggesting it had an impact on us deciding not to do it then, but it was clearly something that was on his mind.”

“I think,” Mr. Iger said, “the timing was better because ABC was back, of course.”

And so other names started to pop up in the press, like Walt Disney Attractions chief Paul Pressler and current Walt Disney Studios chief Peter Schneider. Even Joe Roth, who resigned as Walt Disney Studios head in January.

It all must have come as somewhat of a shock to Mr. Iger, who, though seemingly still being groomed for the job, had to hear about these other people.

Mr. Iger had been on the precipice before. Just before Disney purchased ABC in 1995, Mr. Iger had learned that ABC-Capital Cities chairman Tom Murphy was planning to name Mr. Iger as his replacement. When the $19 billion Disney-ABC merger took place, Mr. Iger was in the position of having to please a new boss.

Until then, Mr. Iger had built a reputation as a reliable go-to guy with a magic touch and steady hand. “Charmed” was a word often used to describe his career. Growing up in Oceanside, L.I., Mr. Iger had dreamed of being a foreign correspondent for CBS News, and after graduating from Ithaca College, he set out on that path, working as an on-air reporter for the local television and cable stations in Ithaca. In 1974, he landed a bottom-rung job at ABC, helping the producers at ABC Sports, eventually becoming a producer himself.

The Capital Cities executives are said to have taken notice of him when he coolly programmed around unseasonably warm weather during the 1988 Winter Olympics, in Calgary. They decided he was worth taking a chance on, and promoted him to the head ABC’s entertainment division, even though he had no experience.

It was a good fit. Mr. Iger steered the network to No. 1 with Home Improvement and Ellen . He developed NYPD Blue . But then came Disney.

Mr. Eisner already knew Mr. Iger–he had sold him Disney-produced television shows–and, along with strong recommendations from the ABC-Capital Cities leadership, made him a point man in the integration of the companies. That left Mr. Iger with the task and power of melding the two cultures–the more open ABC management and the more authoritarian management of Disney.

“In the early years, after the merger,” he said, “I used to compare myself to a traffic cop at 42nd Street and Broadway. It was going by so fast and coming from so many different directions. It was impossible to stop, impossible to control and, for the most part, impossible to breathe.”

And during that integration, the dry spell for ABC was beginning to loom. NBC had E.R., Seinfeld and dominance. ABC’s shows were turning stale. And ABC’s programming chief, Jamie Tarses, brought in from NBC by Mr. Eisner’s appointed No. 2, Mr. Ovitz, was struggling to find a hit. That failure began a long struggle for leadership at ABC Entertainment that finally ended last summer when Ms. Tarses was forced out and the network division was merged with Disney’s television studio. But by then, ABC was solidly stuck in third.

The merger of Disney’s television studio operations with the network division represented the final frustrations of Mr. Eisner over ABC. He had bought the network in order to create “synergies”: Disney would make shows, ABC would air shows, they would work hand in hand. That was theory. But it wasn’t happening, and that failure was starting to be seen on Wall Street as a drag on the Disney stock, which by the end of the summer was falling far from its 1998 high.

Mr. Iger argues that in reality ABC’s cable assets, such as ESPN, A&E and Lifetime, were doing great. Its radio division was growing. Its television stations topped their markets. It still ruled daytime with its soap operas. But prime time is still the most visible part of ABC, covered by the media and watched by investors, and so prime time can still affect stock prices. ABC had to win.

“It was less of a problem from an economic standpoint than it was from an image standpoint, a P.R. standpoint,” Mr. Iger said. “Network television is so visible, it moves markets really in a way that belies sort of bottom-line economics, and when you suffer in that arena, when you are off, so to speak, the perception that’s created is huge, perhaps much larger than it should be. So the entire merger was sort of viewed negatively because of that, which was completely unfair in many respects.”

But it was a long haul in third, five years, and the accruing scent was not sweet.

Enter Millionaire . British producer Michael Davies had been doing great with the show in England and pitched ABC Entertainment’s Stu Bloomberg on the idea. Mr. Bloomberg loved it, weighed running it for consecutive nights–as was the custom in Britain–in the dead of August, when ratings are off, anyway. Mr. Iger said he loved the idea. So did Mr. Eisner. Everybody loved the idea.

Mr. Iger ordered it up without a pilot.

“I don’t think anybody in our entire company knew it was going to be a hit of this magnitude,” Mr. Iger said. “But when we all saw it, we all said, ‘Boy, this really is something.’ Stu and Michael and myself have had experiences like this in the past, you know, but maybe four or five times out of 350 pilots.”

Here’s what Millionaire has done for ABC: For the week ending Feb. 13, it was the No. 1 network, with an average 13.9 million nightly viewers compared with 12.8 million for CBS and NBC. This time last year, ABC was in third place with an average 12 million viewers to CBS’s 13.2 million and NBC’s 12.7 million.

Meanwhile, so far this television season, Millionaire is averaging more than 31 million viewers per show and holds the top three slots of the Nielsen Media Research Top 10.

Other shows are being lifted by it. The Practice , long hailed by critics but never quite a hit with viewers, suddenly has more than 20 million viewers a week.

Now look at the Disney stock. At the end of August, it was going for $26 per share. On Feb. 15, it closed at roughly $37 per share. The day Mr. Eisner announced Mr. Iger’s appointment, he also announced that first-quarter earnings were up 7 percent for Disney, after two years of decline, thanks in part to Millionaire .

“As I look at it, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire generates about $1 million a minute,” said Jack Myer, chief economist of the Myers Group, a media analysis firm. Mr. Myers quoted Michael Eisner as saying it was “like having three ER ‘s a week. If ABC can get one more hit program, then they’re going to have accomplished what really no network has accomplished in 20 years, which is to demonstrate that network television can still bring in huge ratings week after week after week, day after day after day.”

Meanwhile, Millionaire is fitting into that old Disney synergy: There’s a Millionaire CD-ROM, a Millionaire book published by Disney’s Hyperion, and there will soon be a play-along-at-home version on its Go.com. At long last, old media ABC wasn’t looking like such a dumb purchase after all.

And this made Mr. Iger suddenly look like a pretty good promotion. Wall Street had been carping about Mr. Eisner’s lack of an heir apparent, and now it can’t. Now, Bob Iger will start overseeing other Disney divisions, like film–which has racked up Oscar nominations from Sixth Sense and The Insider –and home video-DVD, its positioning in the on-line age.

But Mr. Iger’s hardest task may be living with Mr. Eisner. “Generally, I think it’s hard for anyone to work with Eisner,” Mr. Myers said. “Eisner is hands-on and an autocratic and highly focused leader. He’s right on top of you.”

Back at the Waldorf, Mr. Philbin was singing to Mr. Iger, a rendition of “Happy Birthday to You”: ” You’re the new No. 2/ Michael Eisner chose you/ As the one to succeed him/ Michael Ovitz was, too .”

But the problem with Mr. Ovitz, and for that matter Mr. Katzenberg, was that these were men with sizable egos themselves, men who with significant Hollywood contacts and creative histories, who had a taste of glory on their own. Mr. Iger, trained under the ultimate corporate self-sublimator, Tom Murphy of Capital Cities, was raised to have his glory connected to a team, to ABC. He’s never stood out as a personality. He’s not one to make the scene, opting instead to stay home in his Upper East Side town house with his wife and kids, waking up each morning at 5 A.M. for a Reebok Sports Club workout before a 6:30 A.M. start to his workday. “He really wants to have everybody like him,” said one ABC insider. Sometimes that has meant that managers push ahead on projects only to find out later that Mr. Iger was not behind them. That, however, might play well at Disney, where he will likely have no problem playing second fiddle to Mr. Eisner.

“I’ve had five years of experience of working for him and with him,” said Mr. Iger of Mr. Eisner. “Even though this is a different role and one I will need to grow into, it’s part of a continuum.”

Tonight on ABC, a ratings-improved Two Guys and a Girl . Millionaires don’t go to pizza places. [WABC, 7, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Feb. 17

Tonight on Late Show , Tom Snyder interviews Mike Myers. [WCBS, 2, 11:35 P.M.]

Friday, Feb. 18

Judge Judy is now the No. 1 show in New York during the day. Whadda hell raiser! [WNBC, 4, 4 P.M.]

Saturday, Feb. 19

This morning on Mysteries & Scandals , it’s Ethel Merman. [E!, 24, 8 A.M.]

Sunday, Feb. 20

Tonight, it’s The Little Richard Story on NBC, starring Leon and Garrett Morris. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Feb. 21

Paul Reubens, whom you might know as Pee Wee Herman, makes an appearance on network TV tonight, on Everybody Loves Raymond . Give him some support. [WCBS, 2, 9 P.M.]

Tuesday, Feb. 22

Now we’re talking sweeps! Tonight, on I Dare You! The Ultimate Challenge , UPN shows a plane landing on a truck, and things will certainly blow up! [WWOR, 9, 8 P.M.]