The shake-out in media and entertainment after a few years of mergers, cost-cutting initiatives and massive restructurings has thrust many experienced executives back onto the job market — but they’re not all landing at mainstream Hollywood companies. A growing number of them are making their way into new roles as partners, advisers or entrepreneurs-in-residence at private equity and venture capital funds.
The burst of available executive talent has coincided with an upsurge of interest among investors in putting money into media and related businesses. Now that the dust is settling on the Disney-Fox, AT&T-Time Warner and Comcast-Sky megamergers, veteran observers see the next wave of industry consolidation coming through transactions greased with private equity capital. Some executives are lining up to be in a good position to help prospective new owners operate TV, film and digital content and distribution acquisitions.
Gary Newman, former co-head of Fox Television Group, is among the high-profile executives who have linked up with an investment venture. In October, he signed on as an executive partner of Attention Capital, a startup that was also spurred in part by the sale of 21st Century Fox.
“Right now, you have half a dozen or so really large [media] companies dominating the space,” Newman tells Variety. “They’ve got their mission and it seems to be about creating direct-to-consumer relationships, and everything is secondary to that. It seems to me there’s a lot of opportunity in the media space that fits within the creases of the things that the big companies are doing.”
Jim Lanzone, the outgoing CEO of CBS Interactive, is moving on in January to become an executive-in-residence at San Francisco-based Benchmark Capital. Industry sources say more such moves are expected in the coming months.
There are also a number of prominent players working as CEOs of private equity-backed companies.
Former Sony Pictures TV chairman Steve Mosko last year was tapped as CEO of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, which was acquired by Vine Alternative and Falcon Investment Advisors in 2017. Peter Liguori, former Tribune Media CEO, has been working with Raine Group and recently joined the board of ad tech firm VideoAmp in conjunction with a $70 million round of investment led by Raine. Deborah McDermott, veteran broadcast executive, is now CEO of Standard Media Group, backed by New York-based private equity firm Standard General.
“It’s kind of like the difference between owning your own store and working for Walmart,” Mosko says of making the transition from a studio to working for a privately held concern. “Sometimes, at bigger companies, you wind up playing not to fail. Here, there’s a big mandate to grow the company and create value. There’s no limitation on us to create the next big show.”
Apollo Global Management, one of the nation’s biggest private equity concerns, is in the process of buying a majority stake in Atlanta-based Cox Television, which owns 13 TV stations. Apollo is expected to lean on the Cox team to help it scout out additional TV station acquisitions. Apollo is known to be eagerly pursuing the Tegna station group, which owns 49 TV stations.
Cerberus Capital Management, another heavy hitter, is also said to be in the hunt for TV station buys as well as executive talent. Representatives at Cerberus did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Apollo declined to comment.
Television stations, even those in small markets, are among the assets that some investors see as undervalued. Local broadcast TV stations are getting a lift from the fact that cord-cutting of traditional cable and satellite service continues apace. Viewers are increasingly accessing local stations via old-fashioned antennas. There’s a feeling that free, advertising-supported TV options will become an attractive alternative as consumers are bombarded with subscription options.
The success that Peter Chernin has had as an investor via his Chernin Group in the decade since he left his perch as president and chief operating officer of News Corp. has become a model for some new ventures. Barry Diller’s ever-shifting portfolio of digital brands and businesses under the IAC holding company umbrella is another inspiration.
Joe Marchese co-founded Attention Capital earlier this year with two partners, former Snap content VP Nick Bell and Palantir Technologies senior VP Ashlyn Gentry. The move was a return to Marchese’s roots as a tech entrepreneur. He joined the 21st Century Fox fold after it acquired his True(x) Media advertising technology firm in late 2014. Now, Marchese and his partners are in the process of raising their own capital and are believed to be targeting at least $500 million for acquisitions.
After getting an inside look at how the biggest of Big Media companies operate, Marchese is more convinced than ever that there are ripe opportunities for nimble newcomers led by executives with an understanding of how the industry is changing. Attention Capital’s first public move was to partner with James Murdoch’s Lupa Systems — yet another investment startup fueled by fallout from the Disney-Fox union — to acquire a controlling stake in Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal’s Tribeca Enterprises.
Attention Capital is broadly focused on media-related investments that capitalize on the group’s expertise in advertising technology and content production and distribution. Tribeca is seen as having growth potential at a time when the world is awash in content because it is an established brand as a film festival and production banner.
“Technology and brands that optimize for quality and curation are undervalued, and there is a huge opportunity to support,” Marchese says.
For executives, a deal with a private investment vehicle can be a lifeline in an otherwise tight job market. It can also be an optimal perch to survey what’s out there in the marketplace and to get a glimpse of what’s coming around the corner.
Industry observers note that private equity firms often invest in companies with an eye toward replacing senior management. It’s no surprise that companies would look to build up a roster of advisers with operating experience as they prepare to invest in media.
Newman has found his early work with Attention Capital to be an effective use of skills honed over decades as a senior leader at Fox and before that, NBC. Also joining Attention at the same time as Newman was Lisa Gersh, an alum of Oxygen and Martha Stewart Omnimedia.
Says Newman: “The deep-dive analysis that private equity companies do really appealed to me. I’m looking at an opportunity and trying to find the unrealized value in companies.”
Attention Capital amounts to a part-time commitment for Newman as he prepares for his next chapter, following a 28-year run at Fox. He’s in the hunt for a new full-time gig, which may well come his way through his work for Attention.
“For those of us who have operated at high levels in these big media companies, it’s really appealing to try to dig in and help some of these companies chart a path to find growth opportunities,” Newman says. “If we don’t feel like we can add value to these companies, we won’t invest.”