Dispatches > The Buzz

A Disney divorce

Katzenberg vs. Eisner, getting under the hood of that classic PC, and have-it-your-way television

Issue: "Saber savior," May 22, 1999

Civil war in the Magic Kingdom
Jeffrey Katzenberg once was the darling of the Disney empire. Now the ex-studio boss wants $250 million in a breach-of-contract lawsuit. This high-profile court case is making a year with a disappointing movie season look even worse. Mr. Katzenberg quit Disney back in 1994, complaining that CEO Michael Eisner didn't promote him. He didn't get the No. 2 slot in the empire that opened up when President Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash. In happier days, he was considered a central part of the Magic Kingdom's transformation. During his days of running the film entertainment division, Mr. Katzenberg saw operating income jump from $2.3 million in 1984 to $186.3 million in 1988. Small wonder the guy wants $250 million. The amount of money involved in this corporate divorce is obviously staggering. It shows the power both of Disney and its one-time glory boy. Disney's lawyers claim Mr. Katzenberg is trying to bilk them for royalties on everything from Web sites to gift shop sales. The ex-head claims he gets a cut of his successes, which include Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid. Today, Mr. Katzenberg is the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, the studio that put Antz up against Disney's A Bug's Life and that cozied up to Disney-alienated Christians with The Prince of Egypt. He claims the studio had a secret project called Operation Snowball, aimed at keeping him so buried in accounting paperwork that he could never find out just how much he is owed. When Mr. Katzenberg scored the now-contested contract back in 1988, he sent Mr. Eisner a handwritten note thanking him for his "extraordinary patience and care and understanding." He closed, "I'm deeply appreciative and do love you for it." Now these ex-chums are at each other's throats in court. This lawsuit pulls the curtain off the Hollywood power structure for a quick peek: mogul princes ready to strangle one another for a slice of power. Meanwhile, Disney is facing sluggish earnings and a big summer blockbuster (Tarzan) that looks like it will be squashed by The Phantom Menace. This year plenty of storm clouds hang over the Magic Kingdom. Souping up the old computer
Once upon a time, enthusiasts would pop the hoods of their Fords and Chevys and tinker around for new ways to put more pep into the old V8. Today their descendants by the thousands pull the cases off the PCs and play with tiny switches on circuit boards to get more power out of their Pentiums. The practice is called overclocking, meaning that computer owners search for ways to make their PC's processor move faster than the normal speed of say 75 or 150 or 233 mhz. Computers become cheaper and cheaper, but not everyone wants to shell out another grand to run the latest software. That calls for tweaking, or as cynics say, sucking blood out of a stone. Flipping little jumper switches sometimes works, even if it can cause problems. Overclocking the processor can make it run faster-and hotter-causing it to crash often. It also can shorten the chip's life and make it die earlier; the practice also voids warranties. Yet this is worth the risk, because tinkering is free and upgrades cost money. (Overclocking is also often the tool of an unscrupulous crook who wants to mark up a slow computer to unwary customers.) All of this tweaking is a side effect of a principle called Moore's Law, which states that microchips double in computing power every 18 months. That's why PCs are constantly getting faster and faster. New software is written for speedier machines, leaving the old standbys behind. Thus overclocking becomes tantalizing to the techie-inclined who are stuck with a slow computer that still has payments left. This somewhat risky fiddling shows one of the dark sides of the PC boom: Computers keep getting better and cheaper, but quickly become obsolete. That $3,000 super system becomes an expensive small boat anchor. Total control of TV
Are you ready for TV without channels? Two new devices, TiVo and Replay TV, seek to make the tube like the Internet: available on demand. The boxes work a bit like VCRs: They save what you want to watch to a hard disk so you can watch it later. Even if you are watching a live football game, you can stop and rewind while the box is still recording. These systems cost $500-$700 but are sure to become cheaper as they become more commonplace. On the surface, this is just another way to tape soap operas, but it represents a step toward the day when TV channels and Web sites look a lot alike. The goal is video on demand, where people can watch anything they want to watch at any time. TV signals have the power to provide the "video" part while the World Wide Web has the ability to do the "on demand" part. Eventually they will converge. TiVo and Replay TV are the beginning of an avalanche just as the now-forgotten DiscoVision led to home video. Market watchers at Forrester Research estimate that about 14 million Americans will use what Replay TV calls "personal television" by 2004. If this technology succeeds, then couch potatoes will be able to watch exactly what they want at any time. Downloading "Crossfire" from CNN would be as fast as grabbing a news story off CNN.com. People who only want to watch wholesome programs or degenerate programs will be able to fine-tune their choices perfectly. It also means that the chances will be slim that any two families living on the same street will be watching the same show. Water-cooler conversation will never be the same. Even if TiVo and Replay TV crash and burn, something else will push the postmodern trend: People are becoming more technologically connected and globalized, while their day-to-day lives are atomized and Balkanized.

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