Media Bigs Hobnob in Idaho

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By: Seth Sutel, AP Business Writer

(AP) This mountain resort is no stranger to celebrity, having been the backdrop of several movies and a playground for Hollywood stars since being founded in 1936 by a railroad executive.

But the celebrity power quotient gets kicked up several levels every July, when the boutique and well-connected New York investment bank Allen & Co. takes over the campus for a secretive pow-wow of the top brass in the media industry.

This year’s conference got under way in earnest Wednesday with an interview of News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch by none other than Barry Diller, a longtime media heavyweight himself who helped Murdoch launch the Fox broadcast network a decade ago. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Paul Martin, the newly elected Prime Minister of Canada, gave presentations Tuesday.

Like all official events at the conference, the Diller-Murdoch interview was off-limits to reporters, but much of the real action occurs on the walkways and cafes of the ski resort, where the seeds of several multibillion-dollar media deals have been planted in the past.

The 1996 Walt Disney Co. deal to acquire Capital Cities/ABC was hatched here, and Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner, said he held several key business talks here in his previous role as head of Columbia Pictures.

Vincent, who along with Murdoch was one of the original guests of the Allen & Co. conference in the early 1980s, now runs a small technology research firm called Vincent Enterprises, but he declined to say what kind of meetings he had planned for this year.

Vincent, who still serves on the Time Warner Inc. board, said he was leaving the heavy lifting this year to Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons. The two arrived on the corporate jet on Wednesday. “He’s got a big business to run,” Vincent said with a smile. “I’m just a fifth wheel.”

With many of the top executives of the media world in attendance at the annual conference, interesting pairings of CEOs are bound to occur.

Rupert Murdoch was spotted chatting in the bar of the main lodge with Charles Ergen, the EchoStar Communications Corp. chief with whom Murdoch engaged in a protracted struggle over satellite broadcaster DirecTV, which Murdoch eventually won.

Disney chief Michael Eisner was also in attendance, as was Comcast Corp. chief Brian Roberts. The two had not yet been seen together, but if they did meet surely Roberts’ unsolicited, and eventually unsuccessful, offer to take over Disney and revamp its businesses would be a likely, though uncomfortable, topic.

Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham had a lengthy talk with Les Moonves, the CBS chief who was made co-chief operating officer of media giant Viacom Inc. last month, but Graham said it was strictly a friendly chat. “We’re old friends,” he said.

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett was spotted on the grounds along with several family members, including his son Howard, who is in line to succeed him as chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

Allen & Co. started its annual meeting in the early 1980s with the intention of getting big-time media executives together with investors in a private, informal setting. Kids are encouraged to attend, and are looked after by a small army of babysitters and entertained with hayrides, bowling parties, movies and the like.

Tom Freston, the head of MTV and co-chief operating officer of Viacom Inc. along with Moonves, went skeet shooting, while Brian Roberts, who is an avid cyclist, rented bikes with his kids. Media investor Gordon Crawford went fly-fishing.

Ergen, who opted for white-water rafting, one of the most popular activities, says he enjoyed the challenge of being around very bright people. “People enjoy being surrounded by those who are smarter than they are — that’s how you get smarter, right?”

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