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Meet the New Boss at CBS (Careful, He Bites)

Three years ago, no one but Howard Stern and Don Imus had heard of Mel Karmazin. Today, the demanding, tight-fisted radio mogul is running the Tiffany Network, and Wall Street couldn't be happier.

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On the back of the envelope, the numbers simply didn’t add up. CBS seemed destined to lose at least $100 million a year, maybe as much as $200 million. And now the deal-makers were going to face the cameras and try to convince a skeptical press that this apparent disaster was really a triumph, that by paying an astonishing $500 million a year for the rights to televise the American Football Conference -- $283 million more than NBC had paid the year before -- CBS had somehow made a shrewd move.

Seated at the dais, with an official NFL football in front of him, CBS chairman Michael Jordan looked surprisingly withdrawn, and his slow midwestern drawl and at times uncertain delivery did little to inspire confidence. Bearing the same name as the basketball star used to have its advantages: securities analysts said things like “Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of business.” But ever since his rusting, old-line manufacturing company, Westinghouse, had bought the tarnished Tiffany Network in 1995, Jordan’s fans on Wall Street had forsaken him. He had traded one struggling industry for another: broadcast television. CBS’s stock sagged, and one financial pundit maliciously redubbed him “Hot Air” Jordan.

“We think this is a good economic deal,” Jordan told the skeptical reporters at Black Rock, CBS’s Sixth Avenue headquarters. Later he added that the NFL deal “wasn’t what I would call a fall-on-your-sword kind of issue,” which only made the crowd think it probably was.

The mood wasn’t improved by the second panelist, Sean McManus, the earnest and youthful head of CBS Sports, who insisted unconvincingly, “We are not going to lose money on this deal.” Before hand-delivering the CBS bid to the NFL offices, McManus had stopped to pray at St. Patrick’s, though it turned out that divine intervention was hardly necessary: CBS’s offer was $170 million more than NBC was reportedly willing to pay. As Jordan and McManus spoke, a third man sat by their side, shifting impatiently. He didn’t look like the typical executive, what with his intense, mischievous eyes peering out from beneath remarkably oversize and intimidating black brows. Unlike Jordan, he hadn’t studied at Princeton and Yale -- he’d worked his way through night school. And at 54, he still suffered the indignity of hearing people badly mispronounce his immigrant family’s name. He had been in the TV business for only eight months, yet this was the one man whom financial writers and CBS’s nervous investors were most eager to hear, the one whose opinions they actually trusted.

Mel said it was a good deal. And they believed in Mel.

Mel Karmazin runs the 77 radio stations and the fourteen TV stations owned and operated by the company (the “O-and-Os,” in broadcaster’s lingo), but his unofficial job description is CBS’s would-be savior. He had the easy self-assurance and natural chutzpa to joke freely about the football deal and get away with it. “Through Sean and the sports department, we have access to tickets,” he said, openly acknowledging the much-whispered joke that the real reason CBS committed billions for the NFL rights was just so its execs could get free seats at games. The crowd smiled as if on cue. Then he pointed out the dozens of giveaway baseball hats emblazoned nfl on cbs. “We had the hats ordered six months ago,” he deadpanned. “You can’t get hats quickly. So we had all the confidence in the world that we’d be back with the NFL.”

By the end of the week, CBS’s stock price was up more than $2, or 8 percent, to nearly $30 a share, meaning that the company’s overall market valuation had risen by $1.75 billion -- despite a deal that looked like a huge money loser. But Mel said it was good, and Wall Street absolutely loves Mel.

“The stock went up, and that’s incredible,” said Jessica Reif Cohen of Merrill Lynch, one of the most powerful analysts on the media and entertainment beats. “It shows how good Mel is and how much people believe in him.”

Don Imus is at his studio at WFAN in Astoria, just after finishing his show. He fires off a list of the men he considers the top echelon of corporate moguls. He names Lou Gerstner, who turned IBM around. Jack Welch, the mastermind of General Electric. Sumner Redstone of Viacom. Michael Eisner at Disney. And Mel Karmazin. “He’s of that ilk,” says Imus. “He’s one of the few people in that sort of position who’s genuinely interested in the shareholders as opposed to his own interests.” The I-Man is biased, of course. Karmazin’s the guy who pays him well over $2 million a year, the guy who took his local show to more than 100 stations nationwide. Still, Imus’s view reflects the conventional wisdom on Wall Street, which is thoroughly caught up in what Cohen calls “Mel Fever.”


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