HOLLYWOOD -- When the government forced the major studios out of the movie-theater business in the 1940s and the major television networks out of the program-production business in the 1970s, who would have guessed that media moguls would wind up consolidating more power than ever?
Time Warner Chairman Gerald R. Levin and Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael D. Eisner already rule over kingdoms bigger than their predecessors could have imagined. Now, with talk that one may acquire NBC, there's the chance to add the penetrating reach of a network to a collection of assets that includes film, TV, cable, music, theme parks, exhibition, publishing and video.
It's a measure of changing attitudes that no one's screaming bloody murder over their latest skyscraper-sized vertical integration moves. Most assume that Time Warner, as a cable operator, can clear the regulatory hurdles in the way of an NBC deal. And Disney's path is even less cluttered, since it's not in the cable hardware business. In light of their discussions with NBC parent General Electric, the definition of a media mogul is being redefined.
At the height of his power, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Chairman Louis B. Mayer dominated only one medium -- movies. Time Inc.'s Henry Luce had only publishing. Others added a few more pieces. Legendary CBS Chairman William Paley ran CBS TV, Radio and Records, and Gen. David Sarnoff linked the programming of NBC to the manufacturing of radios and TVs through RCA.
Those titans exercised power more visibly and forcefully, often because they were owners. They also operated in a less crowded media environment, at the dawn of the modern communications era. But in today's fragmented world -- where movies compete with network TV which competes with cable which competes with video games which compete with music -- Mr. Levin and Mr. Eisner are among the rare breed of executives with full reach.
As a music manufacturer, Time Warner sold a staggering 300 million compact discs and cassettes worldwide last year by artists as varied as Eric Clapton, Naughty by Nature, Enya and George Gershwin.
On top of that, Mr. Levin's Time Warner controls 20 percent of BTC domestic magazine advertising revenue with perennials such as Time, People and Sports Illustrated; 14.6 percent of the domestic box office with movies such as "Natural Born Killers" and "Maverick;" 8.5 hours of prime-time network programming with shows such as "Murphy Brown" and "Full House"; the influential pay channel HBO; Six Flags theme parks; a piece of CNN and some 9 million cable subscribers.
Mr. Eisner's business is more purely entertainment-based, but no less omnipresent.
It's possible for a child to go to bed in Disney's "Aladdin" pajamas, wake up and watch the Disney Channel's "Gummi Bears," pack a Mickey Mouse lunch box for school, dress in a Disney Mighty Ducks T-shirt, spend the afternoon watching Disney cartoons or listening to the best-selling "Lion King" soundtrack and go to sleep with a Disney bedtime story like "Pinocchio."
Mr. Eisner has a higher profile than Mr. Levin, so far, because he's been on the job longer and has taken over Uncle Walt's
folksy role as Disney spokesman. They also have diametrically different personalities -- with Mr. Eisner seeming the polished leader of a pop culture kingdom while Mr. Levin is so introverted and studious he seems to fade out of group photographs.
But both have put strong personal stamps on their companies, even if they have done it more subtly than former media chieftains.
Mr. Levin, 55, is a former biblical literature student who came up through the cable ranks at Time Warner. It was because of his civil libertarian stance, however short-lived, that the controversy over rapper Ice T's "Cop Killer" song raged as long as it did last year. Mr. Levin is also more attuned to the high-tech world of new media than his predecessor, Steve Ross.
Disney, on the other hand, is a reflection of Mr. Eisner's colonization mentality, which has the company expanding everything from theme park locations to retail outlets. Much of what Disney produces is also the result of the middle-brow taste of Mr. Eisner, 52, who put in time at all three major networks and Paramount before rescuing Disney. He was an early champion of movies such as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills" and is said to be a major Chevy Chase fan.
A broadcast network would add immeasurably to those power bases. Even though cable has cut into their business, the networks still provide the biggest direct line into U.S. homes, with an average 9 million prime-time viewers each. A network can be used as a place to run studio-produced TV shows, movies and cross-promotions too numerous to imagine.
And the road to empire building doesn't end at NBC's Rockefeller Center. It's widely assumed that CBS and Capital Cities/ABC will be sold or partnered with other entertainment companies before the dust clears. Mr. Eisner could someday stage an entire Chevy Chase festival. And Mr. Levin could do wonders for Ice T.