Walt Disney Co. promoted Robert Iger to president of the world's second-largest media company today, giving Chairman Michael Eisner a second-in-command for the first time since 1996.
Iger, chairman of Disney's ABC Group, now oversees the ABC and ESPN television networks, Disney's radio and TV stations and its international operations. He will become the company's first president since the controversial departure of Michael Ovitz.
Eisner has been under increasing pressure to name a number-two person to help him handle Disney's daily operations, especially as the company tries to recover from an earnings slump now in its third year. Eisner had resisted calls by some analysts and investors to make such a move since Ovitz left the company with a hefty severance package after just 14 months on the job that were marked by simmering tension between the two executives.
"Iger is an exceptionally competent and highly regarded executive," said Storm Boswick, managing director of J&W Seligman & Co., which owns Disney shares.
The appointment highlights Iger's rising star at Disney, though analysts say the move doesn't necessarily make him Eisner's chosen successor. The succession question has long been on the minds of shareholders, especially after Eisner's heart bypass surgery in 1994 and the death of his right-hand man and close friend Frank Wells in a helicopter crash that same year.
Eisner has been criticized for what some say is his inability to share management responsibility and retain top executives at the company. In the past few years, a host of key executives have left Disney, including studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg and chief financial officers Steve Bollenbach and Richard Nanula. Last week, Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth resigned.
Iger, who started his career as a TV weatherman in Ithaca, N.Y., joined ABC in 1974 before it merged with Capital Cities Inc. and was later bought by Disney. He worked his way up from studio supervisor, through the sports division, to president of ABC Entertainment, where he helped introduce series such as "Doogie Howser, M.D.," "Family Matters" and "Home Improvement."
Iger was named president of ABC in 1996 and last year was appointed to the newly created post of chairman of the ABC Group and president of Walt Disney International, a move that fueled speculation that he was being groomed as Eisner's successor.
He has been under pressure to improve the performance at the ABC network, which has taken a turn for the better in recent months because of the hit game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
CAPTION: Robert Iger was promoted from chairman of Disney's ABC Group.