The Severance Kings

Media moguls find life much rosier in the unemployment line. Plus: The Golden Globes at a safe distance.

Published January 23, 2003 10:04PM (EST)

In the media ocean of New York a lot of whales have been beached or harpooned lately. At AOL Time Warner, CNN, MCA Records, Sony Music and Random House, the big fish have all been flayed and filleted. It's the most impressive haul since last summer when Vivendi's Jean-Marie Messier, Bertelsmann's Thomas Middelhoff and AOL's Robert Pittman got the hook, and it may not be over yet.

Most of the latest batch have been happy to go, even when pushed. The secret back story of American business in the last two years, even before 9/11 and the corporate scandals, is how heartily all the big boys in the executive suites have hated their lives. Being a player, it seems, turned out to be too much work. The great Viagra days of the '90s -- buying another player's company over a round of golf as yours was about to detumesce -- are history. What's required now isn't Big Deals, it's Process. The headache of sweaty, detail-clogged, discussion-laden days and hours trying to make unwieldy behemoths jammed together in a blaze of publicity actually work. And if corporate largesse has already made you rich, who needs the aggravation?

That's why Elba is crowded with exiled Napoleons these days, and that's why most of them think it's a vacation paradise.

This is the interesting paradigm of 2003. Everyone who has a top job is envious of the ones who don't. The big bucks, even where they haven't evaporated, are not worth the pain of crawling home every night with a head splitting from bottom-line hysteria, vengeful shareholders, treacherous accountants, whining employees and all the stressed-out hours sitting with the corporate "public affairs specialist" spinning, spinning, spinning the circling vultures of the press.

The psychology behind the timing of all the recent turmoil is pretty obvious. When CEOs go off for the year-end break, an orgy of self-pity sets in. They "rediscover" family life, which means that their spouse has finally got into their face for a concentrated period of time and yelled that they aren't going to take it anymore. Plus, there is nothing like slowly riding up a mountain in a chairlift at Aspen or floating on a large boat in the Bahamas to make a big executive feel the harsh unfairness of his plight the other 50 weeks of the year.

This phenomenon is as true of the CEOs who don't quit. When my husband went to Men's Week at the top California spa a few years ago he was struck by how many CEOs being pummeled on the massage slab were ruminating about whom they were going to fire when they got back. "I gotta get rid of the son of a bitch who's supposed to be running my company. Jesus, he even calls me here."

It's rather pleasing to think that in the course of making working life unbearable for everyone else with their mad, unwieldy mergers, top executives have also made it unbearable for themselves.

AOL's ousted chairman Steve Case was asked if he wouldn't be bored sitting around on his 28,000-acre pineapple farm in Hawaii with no job rather than running a communications empire. He replied, "Hawaii doesn't sound that bad to me." You bet. The new aristocracy are the Severance Kings, wrapped in their payoffs and free at last.

I have to admit that in my new life without a magazine to run, I feel a teensy bit of this luxury myself. I've been discovering how seductive it is to own your own life rather than rent it.

One small perk of my new existence, for instance, is not having to go to Hollywood for the Golden Globe Awards. I used to go every year to host a party and troll for movie star covers.

I am told that once upon a time the Golden Globes, sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, used to be a slightly corrupt and cockeyed little fiesta where Sophia Loren could make a risqui joke from the stage without giving Middle America a heart attack. Now the presence of TV cameras has turned a hokey Hollywood affair into a pre-Oscar trash-fest almost entirely hijacked by commerce. There are so many sponsors and freebies it's like spending the evening trapped in a gift bag with two press agents and a hairdresser, unable to get to the bathroom.

Attendance at the show requires climbing into a preposterous designer dress and a lot of rocks borrowed from Cartier at 3 o'clock in the afternoon (to fool East Coast viewers in another time zone into thinking it's a glittering evening). You are then squeezed into a table with a morosely silent nominee and his entourage (How pissed was Leo, by the way?) in intense overlit heat with a plate of asparagus and chicken congealing before you. It stays uneaten for three hours A) because it's teatime not dinnertime and B) because nobody looks good on TV shoveling food in their mouth. The cameras also demand for some reason that there is a bottle of champagne but no water. "I don't know about you," Hugh Grant commented to me one year, "but underneath this tux I am sweating like a wolf."

Waiting for valet parking to surface, you then stand in line with the stars of a thousand TV sitcoms you have never watched and wait for very small talents to climb into very big cars.

There has to be a better way and there is. I have never felt more a member of the media elite than I did last Sunday -- watching the Globes on TV in my own home with a bowl of soup and the all-knowing commentary of my 12-year-old daughter.

By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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