Entertainment

“Will Humility Have Set In?” Media Moguls Return to Sun Valley Under Darkening Financial Skies

This time last year, as the illustrious guests of Allen & Company’s annual mogul bonanza were pulling up to the entrance of the storied Sun Valley Resort in the mountains of central Idaho, David Zaslav stepped out of his chauffeured SUV and gave an interview about big-media’s robust appetite for M&A. Zaslav had just pulled off a deal for the history books: the creation of Warner Bros. Discovery, of which he is now CEO. “There was a line wherever he was,” Oprah Winfrey told me at the time, relaying a scene report from Gayle King.

As this year’s so-called summer camp for billionaires kicks off Tuesday, Zaslav will hardly want for company while sipping cocktails in the Duchin Lounge. But other attendant honchos will surely elicit a greater deal of scrutiny and interest. For starters, there’s Elon Musk, who is expected to attend for the first time in several years, as his rollercoaster Twitter takeover inches toward some sort of spectacular conclusion. The Tesla boss isn’t just one of the most talked about and controversial people in the business world—he’s become one of the most talked about and controversial figures in the entire world, and his likely ownership of Twitter is seen as having major implications for free speech and democracy and the ability of platforms to rein in disinformation in a highly polarized society. “I definitely think Elon will grab a lot of attention,” one Sun Valley fixture told me. “No question.”

Someone else who has attended the conference over the years alternatively posited, “Everybody will be watching for the body language between Chapek and Iger, the Game of Thrones dynamic between the current emperor and the past emperor, and how that will shake out.” This source was referring, obviously, to the two Bobs—Bob Iger, the legendary former CEO of Disney, and Bob Chapek, the embattled current Disney boss—whose well-documented falling-out has been grist for the Hollywood gossip mill. Chapek, of course, will arrive in Idaho with a new three-year contract, putting to bed speculation that, following a series of highly publicized stumbles, his Disney stewardship may not be long for this world. (As another conference-goer joked, “When everyone ran out of stuff to talk about in the media business, they started gossiping about Chapek.”)

Who else? There’ll surely be eyes on Sheryl Sandberg, who recently resigned from Meta/Facebook after 14 years with the company. Or Brian Roberts and Shari Redstone, both seen as needing to enlarge their respective corporate fiefdoms, Comcast and ViacomCBS. Conspicuously absent from this year’s guest list is Jeff Bezos, who usually doesn’t miss the thing. It could be that he’s trying to create a bit of breathing room for Amazon’s new CEO, Andrew Jassy. Or as a couple of my sources suggested, he might just be galavanting around Europe on his mega-yacht. (Wouldn’t you be?) As for the Murdochs, I was able to confirm that James, Lachlan, and Rupert will all be in attendance. And among the requisite celebrity-type journalists prowling the resort, keep an eye out for Substack star Bari Weiss. “I’m going! And I’m excited!” she texted me on Friday. “But I do not have the requisite vest. Nellie and I”—as in Nellie Bowles, her wife—“are researching high-end athleisure at this very moment.”

Then there’s the Netflix of it all. For a long time, the O.G. streaming service was king of the jungle, the pinnacle to which all others aspired as they began to recalibrate their businesses for the unbundled, multiplatform future. Now, those others are catching up, which means Netflix bosses Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos find themselves fighting to hold on to the throne. One of the biggest stories in media this past spring was the company’s stunning subscriber loss, its first in 10 years, with further bleeding projected in the second quarter. That story will be hanging in the air as attendees amble along the resort grounds in their signature fleece vests. “To see how Reed and Ted engage with people will be interesting for sure,” one source said. “It’s a big sea change for them in their business. How are they thinking about it?” Another wondered whether Netflix might begin to look like an acquisition candidate, noting the steep plunge in the company’s market capitalization and value: “They still have something most people don’t have, which is 220 million subscribers and a great technology platform.”

There were a few other themes that came across in conversations with various big shots I spoke with. One was the potential for further M&A. Merger fervor has cooled since the gold rush of the prior few years, and the biggest players have shored up their power. But further consolidation is surely in store. Also, one source noted there’s a “recognition” that the biggest media companies in the world—Netflix, Disney, and Warner Bros. Discovery—don’t have controlling shareholders who own the lion’s share of outstanding stock. Will they be able to stay that way, or is it only a matter of time? Someone else suggested a sudden popularity for companies with big balance sheets. Roberts, for instance, never attracted a lot of attention, but maybe now, with Comcast’s nearly $9 billion in cash on hand, he just might.


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