Reinventing Hollywood

There was a telling moment, midway through the Sept. 7 press conference announcing the CBS-Viacom megamerger, when one of the unmentionables of American entertainment peeked through the veils for an instant. It came when a reporter asked CBS President Mel Karmazin why he wanted this merger. His reply: “This is the deal I’ve wanted to make, I think, from the time I was bar mitzvahed.”

The reporters laughed nervously. Nobody commented afterward. Nobody would have brought it up if Karmazin hadn’t. It’s one of those inside jokes you don’t usually tell in public.

Americans consider it downright rude to talk publicly about Jewish ownership in the media. Marlon Brando mentioned it two years ago on “Larry King Live” and nearly got lynched. Three years earlier, journalist William Cash caused an international uproar with a scathing article in the British newsweekly the Spectator, also about Jewish influence in Hollywood. It’s just not something you discuss in conventional society.

But Karmazin isn’t conventional. The son of a New York cabdriver, he was a fast-talking ad salesman who built his own radio network, Infinity Broadcasting, best known as the home of shock-jocks Howard Stern and Don Imus. CBS bought Infinity in 1996. Two years later, Karmazin took over CBS.

In an industry dominated by corporate suits, Karmazin is a throwback to an older era of seat-of-the-pants, shoot-from-the-hip Jewish media entrepreneurs. “He’s always refreshingly straightforward about who he is,” says a friend. “He doesn’t make a big deal of his Jewishness, but he’s right out there with it.”

How Jewish is that? It’s hard to find out. Your correspondent sought an interview the Friday after the merger, but was told Karmazin left early for Rosh Hashanah.

Karmazin’s new boss, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, is cut from similar cloth. Son of a nightclub owner (his father changed the family name from Rothstein), he built a chain of movie theaters and, in 1987, took over Viacom, an also-ran cable and syndication company. He’s turned it into one of the biggest forces in Hollywood, acquiring Paramount Pictures, MTV and much more. But he never joined the Tinseltown set. He won’t even move out of his hometown, Boston, where he’s a major donor to the local Jewish federation.

The CBS-Viacom marriage is the biggest media merger in history. It combines two Hollywood giants to form America’s second-biggest media company. It’s also a historic milestone in the long, complicated relationship between Hollywood and the Jews. They’re coming back to Hollywood’s boardrooms after a lengthy exile.

Jewish media ownership is a sturdy myth, but only partly true. Yes, Jews “invented Hollywood.” Thomas Edison invented the motion-picture camera, but it remained a novelty item. A generation of immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs — Sam Goldwyn, Jack and Harry Warner, Louis B. Mayer and others — built a multibillion-dollar dream factory around it. A later generation of Jewish entrepreneurs created the broadcast networks: William Paley’s CBS, David Sarnoff’s NBC and Leonard Goldenson’s ABC.

But those Jews died years ago. The Hollywood lampooned by Cash in 1994 was no longer owned by Jews. It had been taken over by public corporations with little Jewish leadership. In the course of the 1980s, Columbia Pictures was bought by Sony Corp., Universal by Matsushita, 20th Century-Fox by Rupert Murdoch’s Australian-based News Corp., NBC by General Electric and ABC by Capital Cities Corp.

The only exceptions were Warner Bros., bought in 1969 by Jewish parking-lot mogul Steve Ross, and CBS, bought in 1985 by hotelier-philanthropist Laurence Tisch. Tisch bailed out in 1995, selling CBS to Westinghouse after a decade’s missteps.

By then, though, the pendulum was swinging back.

In 1990, Steve Ross merged his Warner Communications with Time Inc. to create Time Warner, the world’s biggest media company. Ross died two years later and was succeeded as chairman by a little-known Time Inc. executive Gerald Levin, who had once considered a rabbinic career.

Levin represents a new breed of media mogul. Technically, he’s not a mogul at all, since he doesn’t own the company he manages. But he’s so powerful and so well-paid that the management-ownership distinction fades.

Levin isn’t the first of the breed. First was Michael Eisner, chairman of Walt Disney Co. Eisner was hired by Disney — the only Hollywood studio actually founded by a non-Jew — in 1985, when Walt’s children lost the company in a hostile takeover. The new owner, Walt’s nephew Roy, had been forced out of the family business after Walt’s death in 1966. He returned with a largely Jewish management team — a rich irony at a company long regarded as anti-Semitic.

Levin and Eisner run a new type of entertainment company. Each combines movies, television (Disney acquired ABC in 1995), cable, records, theme parks, books and magazines into a single company, for annual revenues topping $20 billion. Boosters say the mix creates “synergy,” meaning the parts reinforce each other. Critics fear that they’ll become monopolies, stifling creativity and integrity.

Either way, they’re the wave of the future. Today, just five mega-companies dominate American entertainment. Biggest is Time Warner. Close behind are Disney and the new Viacom-CBS. Fourth, with half the others’ revenues, is Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Fifth is Universal, bought from Matsushita in 1997 by the Bronfman family’s Seagram Corp.

Those five — Time Warner, Disney, Viacom-CBS, News Corp. and Universal — rule the entertainment world in a way the old Hollywood studio chiefs never dreamed of. And, after all the deals and buyouts, four of the five are run by Jews. We’re back where we started, bigger than ever.

Does it matter? It does if you’re an anti-Semitic conspiracy nut. Louis Farrakhan thinks a Jewish committee meets in New York each year to decide what movies will get made. He’s wrong.

Most outside observers say the Jewishness of Hollywood’s Jews is meaningless. They’re wrong too.

There was a Jewishness in the dreams spun by the old Jewish media moguls, of a world of opportunity and possibility where everyone was equal. Just the sort of America a Jewish immigrant might hope for.

The new Jewish moguls dream similar dreams. But their identities are more secure and their empires are shakier, and they rarely let their beliefs show.

It’s no accident that Murdoch, the only non-Jew in the group, is also the only political conservative. He’s also the only one who risks company money to promote his beliefs. The others spend most of their time making deals.

Too bad Murdoch wasn’t bar mitzvahed.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.