A Tale of Two Moguls

With the hindsight of a week back at the desk, let’s return one more time to lessons from last week’s Jupiter Consumer Online Forum in New York.

Yes, these are the best of times and the worst of times. It’s a time of wealth and a time of danger. It’s a time for trial and a time for error.

This is especially true for some of the media moguls Jupiter brought to the forum for us to study, like Seagram’s chairman, Edgar Bronfman, and NBC’s president, Robert Wright.

Bronfman came to his position the old-fashioned way, through inheritance. Still, he has always styled himself a visionary. He dumped the family’s 20 percent stake in DuPont to buy into movies, music and TV. Since the Universal Music Group is his, he chose the web’s impact on music for his text (which he read carefully off sheets of paper).

Music publishing has always been a gate-keeping function. The expense of producing a record or – worse – marketing it through radio airplay has kept musicians tied for generations to one-sided contracts that give the publishers the music in exchange for poverty and hard touring. The rise of MP3.com has many musicians (and their managers) talking about a revolution.

Bronfman doesn’t hear them. His plan is to build some mega-sites, buy control of any great ideas that might compete with them, and sic the law on everyone else. “Our business prospects have never been brighter,” said the Seagram King several times. Let them eat cake.

Robert Wright of NBC, on the other hand, earned his position. He’s an employee of General Electric Corp., responsible for growing earnings. Under Wright, NBC is number one again, it has some solid cable franchises, and Wright has a clue about what he’s up against.

“Traditional media companies are a thing of the past,” he said, and meant it. It’s not enough to aggregate for advertisers. You have to compete with Yahoo and AOL for viewers with content and imagination.

Wright told jokes, read from a Teleprompter as though it weren’t there, and even brought forth a minion for a demo. His strategy has been to buy, or build, solid sites in each major niche – search, shopping, community, finance, fulfillment, news – then put them under a broadband portal, NBCi.com, providing personalized services.

It sounds like a failed Microsoft strategy, but in Wright’s world the content sites succeeded before the portal came online. Even discounting the MSNBC and CNBC sites (the former a joint venture with Microsoft, the latter wholly owned by NBC), NBCi is now number seven in web traffic.

A proven ability to compete gives Wright the credibility to do intriguing new deals, like launch Ralph Lauren’s Polo.com. I thought this was the biggest news of the show. Lauren has never bought TV ads, and he’s never been online before. Lauren trusts Wright’s team to make this work, and they’ve got the track record to make this a fair bet.

There are no guarantees. The future for some media companies is one of Georgian splendor, while others are headed for the guillotine. In the last scene I’ll be playing Madame Defarge, knitting needles and all. I won’t give away the ending, however. That is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done before…

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