Until this year, the best part of being a mogul at a multibillion-dollar global-media empire (aside from the private jets, the eight-figure salaries, the celebrities sucking up to you) was that the job seemed to come with a lifetime guarantee.
But then, last March, even the moguls learned to sweat. That's when Disney shareholders socked Michael Eisner with a 43 percent no-confidence vote, a reversal of fortune that helped him shed his 20-year chairman-of-the-board title immediately and announce his retirement as Disney's CEO in 2006. Eisner, 62, isn't the only entertainment titan to get roughed up in 2004: This summer, after years of bickering with CEO Sumner Redstone, Viacom president and COO Mel Karmazin finally left the company (although he reportedly did get to take home a fabulous $30 million parting gift). As one top Hollywood power agent puts it: ''The fear of being fired has suddenly become real for people who were used to doing the firing.''
Of course, one billionaire's misfortune is another's opportunity and the other big story in mogulville this year has been the guessing game of who will succeed at succession. Who, for instance, will become Disney's next CEO? The Disney board of directors is hiring a headhunting firm to help sift through the possibilities, and has said it wants to choose a candidate by June. Will it be Disney president Robert Iger (Eisner's choice)? Yahoo! chief (and former Warner Bros. studio head) Terry Semel? News Corp. COO Peter Chernin? CBS honcho Les Moonves? If the winner is one of these guys, well, that opens up a new job, and the corporate musical chairs that would ensue might make for one entertaining reality show!
Karmazin's exit from Viacom not to mention Redstone's approaching 82nd birthday has made that company particularly fertile territory for succession speculation. In June, Redstone anointed MTV head Tom Freston and CBS' Moonves as co-presidents and co-chief operating officers, squeezing out Viacom Entertainment Group chair Jonathan Dolgen (who bolted the very next day). The move pitted these two old pals (who sometimes vacation together) in a classic Lear-like struggle over the future of the crown. Moonves claims that ''we're both keeping our eye on doing our jobs so this really isn't a battle to see who succeeds Sumner,'' but industry wags expect the competition to get downright Shakespearean.
Not every media company is in the midst of a dramatic succession struggle. Au contraire! Richard D. Parsons, the 56-year-old CEO of Time Warner (EW's parent company), won't be heading for a retirement village in Boca anytime soon. Under his watch, the Time Warner empire (which wisely dumped its ailing music division) has arguably the most collegial team at its helm, with 60-year-old Don Logan as chairman of the Media & Communications Group, and heir apparent Jeffrey Bewkes, 52, as chairman of the Entertainment & Network Group. Over at Sony, which merged with BMG this year and purchased MGM, 62-year-old Sony Corp. of America chairman-CEO Sir Howard Stringer has two potential future kings: Michael Lynton, 44, the former president of Time Warner International, whom Stringer hired as chairman and chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment; and Andrew Lack, 57, who now oversees Sony BMG Music Entertainment.