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Totalling up Eisner's scorecard

Totalling up Eisner's scorecard

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There have been lots of well-thought-out, detailed responses from my earlier request for comments on Michael Eisner's tenure as the head of the Walt Disney Company.

In reviewing readers' comments, I noticed some patterns emerging. With people praising Michael Eisner for:

  • Recognizing & embracing the historical creative entertainment legacy of The Walt Disney Company
  • Trying so hard in the early years to emulate Walt Disney
  • Bringing back and then hosting "The Wonderful World of Disney" TV show
  • Relaunching Disney Feature Animation back in the early 1980s
  • Initially elevating and emphasizing the role that Roy Disney played at the corporation
  • Nurturing and then feeding the R&D side of Feature Animation and Walt Disney Imagineering
  • Building enticing new theme parks and great new rides

But then blasting Disney's soon-to-be-ex-CEO for:

  • Abandoning Disney's creative legacy in favor of ABC's corporate culture
  • Replacing virtually all of Disney's top management team with ABC executives
  • Cutting back on reinvestment in the domestic theme parks and focusing on overseas expansion
  • Gutting and then shrinking both Disney Feature Animation & Walt Disney Imagineering
  • His bitter public battles with Jeffery Katzenberg, Michael Ovitz, Roy Disney & Stanley Gold
  • Eventually coming to resent the legacy of Walt Disney, and then actively and aggressively trying to replace it with his own

Given the diversity of opinion here, one has to wonder how history will actually judge Michael Eisner.

Me personally? When it comes to Disney's soon-to-be-ex-CEO, I think it's important to remember that this is a very ambitious man that we're talking about here. Someone who actually yearned to make history on a global level.

And there's certainly no denying that Michael Eisner did actually make history during his 21-year career at Disney. For this was the guy who arrived at Walt Disney Productions back in 1984 and took a sleepy company that was teetering on the brink of oblivion and turned into the multi-national multi-media corporation that we know today.

Mind you, Michael's critics will tell you that most of Eisner's accomplishments during his first ten years at Disney were just "low-hanging fruit." That any reasonable entertainment industry executive could have come Walt Disney Productions in 1984 and made those same moves. That Michael was just in the right place at the right time.

Still others will tell you that Eisner was lucky that Frank Wells let him be the front man at Disney. Instead of being the behind-the-scenes guy, which was the role Michael occupied when he was in power at Paramount.

Me personally? I have to agree that these are all valid points. But -- at the end of the day, as the CEO of The Walt Disney Company -- Michael reaps the credit for anything good that happened during his tenure. But -- at the same time -- he also bears the brunt of criticism for anything bad that happened during his two-decades-plus as head of the Mouse.

However you feel about Michael Eisner, you have to admit that -- between 1984 and 1994 -- the Walt Disney Company had an incredible run. It was producing popular motion pictures & hit television series, churning out amazing new attractions & theme parks. And it was during this time that people actually began comparing Michael to Walt Disney himself.

Now the real problem was that Michael became aware of these comparisons. In fact, there's a rather infamous story about how Eisner -- supposedly at a Disney board meeting -- supposedly blurted out: "I just realized. D-I-S-N-E-Y. E-I-S-N-E-R. There's only two letters difference between Walt's last name and my own. I guess the two of us really do have a lot in common."

And all of this "Michael is the next Walt" talk eventually went to Eisner's head. Which is what lead to his big, heady pronouncement in the early 90's like "You ain't seen nothin' yet, folks!"

With the hope that his own legacy would eventually eclipse Walt's, Michael rolled out overly-ambitious plans like the "Disney Decade." Which called for unprecedented expansion of the Walt Disney Company. With Westcot Center being built in Anaheim, Disney-MGM clones being created for both the Tokyo & Paris resort, "Disney's America" being constructed just outside of Washington D.C.

Of course, "The Disney Decade" never really materialized for a variety of reasons. And the 1990s ... They proved to be "The best of times, the worst of times" for Michael Eisner. Early on in the decade, Disney's CEO continued to have great success. But then -- following the tragic death of Frank Wells & Jeffery Katzenberg's exit from the company -- Michael's lucky streak went cold.

In Greek mythology, the only difference between a comedy and a tragedy is whether or not the hero is alive at the end of the story. And the second decade of Michael Eisner's leadership at the Walt Disney Company on paper would be truly comedic if it wasn't so tragic on so many levels. The poor financial choices that he made during this period probably wound up costing Disney billions. And the body count of "average Disney employees" who lost their jobs during Eisner's tenure has to number in the thousands. Not to mention all of professional-working relationships that were ruined because Michael constantly pushed his staff to always get the best possible deal.

In my opinion, the ultimate lesson that can learned from Michael Eisner's 21-year tenure as CEO of The Walt Disney Company is not a new lesson. Particularly for someone who works in show business. It's that old vaudeville adage: Always go out on top.

If Eisner had exited the Walt Disney Company ten years ago, he would have been hailed as a visionary. The man who turned the Mouse into a giant. But now -- having stayed too long at the fair -- Michael's legacy is (at best) a mixed bag.

So now the big question is: Will Robert Iger now be left holding Eisner's bag?

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