The talk around the pool at Barry Diller’s annual brunch in Beverly Hills last weekend was not about who would win an Oscar the following day. It was about what Peter Chernin would do once he left News Corp.
Everybody there – including Rupert Murdoch, who wandered among the moguls and machers – knew that Chernin was about to announce his departure, which came officially on Monday.
So what’s next for an A-level executive like Peter Chernin?
Anything he wants.
By all accounts, the News Corp veteran intends to take the next six months to cure malaria.
Really. He spends a lot of time at his non-profit group Malaria No More, and Chernin wants to focus on that intensively with his friends Bill and Melinda Gates.
So that means he won’t be taking a regular job, or seeking to take over another company, anytime in the immediate future.
The 57-year-old executive also remains under contract at News Corp until the end of June, and has promised to help the transition team there.
But after that? The world is his oyster.
In executive suites and mahogany-panelled lunchrooms, in the waiting rooms of private jet terminals and in lunch spots from The Grill to Michael’s, the latest media parlor game is speculation over what Chernin might do.
Nobody thinks that he’ll actually do what’s in his exit clause, which is sit around and produce movies for Fox.
One rampant rumor at Diller’s luncheon was that Chernin might take over Apple, since Steve Jobs is so apparently ill, on leave and his future there is uncertain. Getting Chernin for Apple would kind of seem like a stroke of genius. But one knowledgeable person tells me this rumor is false.
Others are suggesting that Chernin should consider going to Disney, where chief executive Bob Iger is young but has no obvious successor if some unexpected event were to take him out of the picture.
The infighting at Disney between CFO Tom Staggs, ABC chief Anne Sweeney and other top dogs would make an outsider candidate welcome news to Wall Street. And Dick Cook, who runs the movie studio, has nothing like the experience and breadth of a Peter Chernin.
But Chernin might not want to stay in Old Media. And one might say that Disney is no greater challenge than he has already conquered at News Corp. (On the other hand, with Jobs a major shareholder in Disney, that connection is worth thinking about.)
Any number of companies might want a Chernin to help them point toward the future or find a fresh start – Microsoft, anyone?
No, the smart money is that Chernin will focus on something entrepreneurial, and something related to new technologies.
“My best guess is he uses other people’s money, acquires assets and starts building,” said Brad Ruderman, of Ruderman Capital in Beverly Hills. “There isn’t one private equity sponsor out there that wouldn’t love to have him as executive or on their advisory board. "That makes sense. Chernin could buy a traditional media company and build new technology assets from that platform."
Don’t forget, he was the one who spearheaded News Corp’s purchase of MySpace for $580 million in 2005. That company’s value has now been estimated as high as $15 billion.And he was the moving force behind the creation of one of the only entertainment products to show real promise on the web, the television streaming service, Hulu, a joint venture with NBC-Universal.
“Peter is uniquely skilled in dealing with the Hollywood creative community and the digital community, and in being able to fuse both of those together,” said Rich Greenfield, a media analyst with Pali Capital. “Having the creative and digital sides of equation and the strong financial end of the business makes him uniquely qualified. So what does that mean? What company would be big enough, what challenge interesting enough to attract Chernin?
Greenfield, for one, has already gone on the record to recommend that 85-year-old Sumner Redstone hire Chernin to take over Viacom, now run by CEO Philippe Dauman. Few believe that Chernin would want to work for Redstone, however.
But another more radical move is being bandied about along Wilshire Boulevard and Avenue of the Stars: what would happen if Chernin raised some billions and set out to buy Viacom from the debt-saddled Redstone?
That would be a challenge worthy of Chernin. He could run a world-class media company – a role not available to him at News Corp – and marshall assets arguably more valuable than those at Fox: Paramount, MTV, Nickelodeon and a whole range of other cable properties, without the print properties that saddle News Corp.
That, or some other opportunity that combined one media company with some yet-to-be-created web-side entity.
That remains to be seen. But no one thinks that Peter Chernin will stay idle for long.
"The media world as we know it is melting down," said Greenfield. "That in and of itself will create a lot of opportunities over the next number of years for companies that need talented exeutives to transform themselves."