Iger To Succeed Eisner As Disney CEO

Robert Iger was officially anointed as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. on March 13, ending months of speculation about who would follow the 20-year reign of Michael Eisner at the helm of the media giant.

NEW YORK (The Hollywood Reporter) -- Robert Iger was officially anointed as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. on March 13, ending months of speculation about who would follow the 20-year reign of Michael Eisner at the helm of the media giant.

Iger's selection means that about 10 years after Disney's acquisition of ABC, an executive from the TV side of the business will ascend to the top role at the company. Iger's promotion takes effect Sept. 30.

Iger's ascension comes at a turbulent time for Disney. Last year, the company fended off an unsolicited takeover bid from Comcast Corp. and a campaign to discredit current management and many Disney board members by dissident shareholders Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold. Disney also has grappled publicly with the impending loss of a key business partner, Pixar Animation, and its pending split with Harvey and Bob Weinstein, longtime heads of the company's Miramax division.

Industry observers expect Disney's corporate culture to change little under Iger, who had Eisner's support, but some say the new CEO has alienated fewer business partners than Eisner and could sharpen Disney's focus on such areas as new technologies and international growth.

Disney said that Eisner, who has headed up the company since 1984, has decided to leave the CEO post at the end of September -- a year ahead of his previously stated plans -- but the company didn't provide further explanations. In a letter to the board that Disney released on March 13, Eisner said he won't seek the chairman post or a board seat after his departure.

But Eisner's employment contract expires in September 2006, and company officials said that they will honor that contract. They didn't detail whether this will mean that Eisner, 63, will continue to receive contractual payments and benefits or whether he also could be asked to stay at the firm in some other role.

Iger, 54, became Disney's second-in-command as president/COO in 2000. The board voted in his favor on March 12 -- after a six-month search and well ahead of a self-set June deadline -- after reports that the only external CEO candidate left in the race, eBay CEO Meg Whitman, had withdrawn.

It was unclear March 13 what will happen to Disney's president post when Iger takes over the CEO helm. A company statement didn't address that issue, and officials didn't provide more detail on the situation.

Industry observers have suggested that Disney CFO Tom Staggs could be in line for a promotion as a result of Iger's ascension.

In a conference call with reporters March 13, Disney chairman George Mitchell said the company will now turn its attention to two other lingering personnel issues: the search for a new chairman, which will start soon and finish before Mitchell steps down at the firm's next annual meeting in early 2006, and the addition of an independent board member by year's end. Mitchell declined comment on the chairman search beyond saying it hasn't started yet.

Mitchell hinted that changes heading Disney's way could include a stronger focus on exploring the use of new technologies to distribute content, as well as continued expansion overseas, especially in China. Mitchell and industry sources said Iger has taken a keen interest in Asia, which has increasingly contributed to Disney's financials, as well as in technology issues, which critics have sometimes said Eisner ignored at times.

Longtime Disney dissidents Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold claimed some credit for the developments but slammed Disney's board for its handling of the CEO search. "While it has taken three years to reach this point, our efforts to remove Michael Eisner as CEO of the Walt Disney Co. have finally succeeded," they said in a statement.

"It is truly an honor to be entrusted with the responsibility of guiding this great company that occupies such an important place in the hearts and minds of millions the world over toward a very bright future," Iger said in a statement.

Married to TV journalist Willow Bay, Iger has four children.

Disney leadership is currently facing several high-profile challenges, whose outcome could be affected by Iger's appointment. The two main issues are the future of Disney's Miramax unit and its relationship with Pixar Animation Studios.

Disney officials on March 13 didn't comment on whether Disney could save its soon-to-expire distribution partnership with Pixar under Iger. Pixar officials weren't available for comment.

When it comes to Miramax, Mitchell said it wouldn't be "useful or appropriate" for him to comment on the state of talks with the Weinstein brothers, who have run the studio and who are expected to split with Disney. The process is going forward, and the company is capably represented "in the discussions," Mitchell said.

Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein said: "I've had a great working relationship with Bob Iger and think he's a terrific choice as CEO for the Walt Disney Co."

Cynthia Littleton in Los Angeles and Paul J. Gough in New York contributed to this report.