The heat was on at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, but Bob Iger, now the gold-medal CEO of Walt Disney Co., was unfazed.
Temperatures in the 60-degree range melted the snow, which meant no skiing events. It also meant Iger, who was in charge of programming for ABC Sports, would have to make big changes in the network’s primetime coverage of the Games for that night.
Tom Murphy, CEO of Capital Cities/ABC at the time, said Dan Burke, CapCities’ president, watched Iger at work. “He noticed how smooth Bob was under fi re and how calm he was and Dan came back and said ‘This is a guy we really ought to pay some attention to.’” Murphy said. “From then on it was very clear to us that he was an outstanding talent,” said Murphy, who praised Iger’s judgement and integrity. “We always knew he was good. I don’t think we knew he was this good. He has done a spectacular job in every way.”
Ted Harbert, now chairman of NBC, was a programming executive at ABC when he saw how Iger stood out. In 1987, Iger made a sports division presentation during an affiliate meeting at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Speaking for 45 minutes, Iger ran through the entire schedule for college football and Monday Night Football with no notes, no prompter, and did not miss a sentence. “I turned to [ABC Entertainment head] Brandon [Stoddard] and said ‘that guy’s going to run this place someday,’”
Harbert said. From sports, Iger was put in charge of ABC’s Entertainment division. “He took to it like a fish takes to water,” said Harbert. “He established he was the boss, but we never felt he was trampling on our years in the business.” Harbert said Iger showed “incredible leadership” in getting NYPD Blue, with its unprecedented language, sex and violence, on the air, championing the quirky Twin Peaks, encouraging the development of America’s Funniest Home Videos and coming up with the TGIF slogan for ABC’s Friday night lineup.
When Disney acquired CapCities/ABC in 1995, “Bob was obviously the natural person to continue running ABC and get trained at Disney,” said Michael Eisner, Iger’s predecessor as CEO. Iger became the only choice to succeed him, Eisner added.
Though a “broadcast executive by DNA,” Eisner said Iger dove into Disney’s international businesses and the technology Walt Disney Imagineering was using at the theme parks. He also learned the value of brands and “became the biggest advocate of brands, acquiring brands and creating brands.”
Since being named CEO, both Iger and Disney have been outstanding performers, says Jessica Reif Cohen, analyst with Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Cohen says that when he got the job, he acted quickly. He moved Disney’s strategic planning function into the divisions, making him a hero internally.He shifted Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN, burnishing that brand. And he acquired Pixar, revitalizing Disney’s animation business. Later he acquired Marvel and the Star Wars franchise with LucasFilm.
“He made some pretty bold bets and that’s what’s made Disney what it is today,” Reif Cohen said, adding that, “Bob is one of the most innovative media CEOs,” and under him Disney is “one of the few media companies not to fear technology, but to experiment and see it ultimately as a positive.”
The acquisition of Steve Jobs’ Pixar made Jobs Disney’s biggest shareholder. Apple and Disney helped propel TV down the digital path when they made ABC shows available on iTunes. Iger is now on Apple’s board.
“I have deep admiration for Bob as a person and a leader,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “As Disney’s CEO, he has stayed true to the company’s great traditions without being afraid to make changes when they’re needed. Bob has done a masterful job embracing new technologies to benefit both his company and the craft of storytelling that endears Disney to people around the world.”
Former ESPN chairman George Bodenheimer says Iger was “the best boss I ever worked for. He gave you all the support you needed. He was always available. But he also let you do your job.”
Iger is the hardest worker Bodenheimer says he’s ever seen. And when it comes to managing a creative enterprise, “he’s taken to a new level at Disney. He has an appreciation for that.”
Bodenheimer says that Iger’s sports background was a benefit to him and ESPN as the network grew into a multiplatform powerhouse. “Not only did he know the cast of characters that you deal with in the sports business, but he knew the value of sports when the prices were rising. That’s paid big dividends over the past 20 years.”
Iger also encouraged ESPN to take advantage of technology to serve sports fans. “He was on the forefront of that, no doubt about it,” Boden-heimer said. “The results that you’re seeing, not only at ESPN but across Disney, bear that out.”
Iger’s fans in the sports world include Adam Silver, NBA commissioner.
“Bob is passionate about sports. He’s a long-time Clippers and Knicks season ticket holder, and he’s married to my former colleague Willow Bay, who cohosted our weekly show, NBA Inside Stuff, for many years,” Silver said. “Because he’s a sports fan who embraces innovation, Bob was among the first to recognize the vital importance of live sports programming in an increasingly mobile and digital marketplace. ABC/ESPN has been a long-time NBA rights holder and the NBA has been the beneficiary of Bob’s visionary approach to sports production, technology and distribution. Bob has also been a wonderful friend and counselor and has been helpful to me on a wide range of complex issues facing the league.”
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