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Is Walt Disney ready for Steve Jobs?

The man behind two of the first big hits of the digital entertainment era – the iPod music player and computer-generated animation that gave rise to films such as Finding Nemo – is just the person to help revive Disney’s faded glory, according to his many supporters in Silicon Valley. But harnessing the talents of the famously abrasive Mr Jobs could be a challenge even for the diplomatic Bob Iger, Disney’s chief executive.

“If Iger can acquire Pixar and get Steve Jobs on his board, he will have taken a huge step on the path to restoring Disney to its former glory,” says Roger McNamee, a long-time Silicon Valley investor whose latest concern, Elevation Partners, specialises in the media industry.

“Jobs’ judgment about what consumers want and need is second to none right now. It’s remarkable that anyone could be CEO of two companies at the same time; it is miraculous that those companies could change the world as Pixar and Apple have done.”

Mr Jobs was expected on Tuesday to become a director at Disney but not take on any more formal role, while also becoming the company’s biggest individual shareholder. However, analysts who have followed his companies closely say they expect him to become actively involved at Disney.

“I certainly don’t see any exit here – he’s passionate. He’s in the game for some time to come,” says Richard Doherty, analyst at Envisioneering. Observers such as Mr Doherty maintain that Mr Jobs has long felt a strong affinity with artists, and has a personal interest in staying close to the “content” side of the media business.

“There’s a real shortage of moguls in the industry right now who are in touch with their audiences,” says Mr Doherty. “There’s nobody else who can shake this up, to make for a better entertainment experience.”

Trying to draw Mr Jobs into Disney without rocking the boat could prove difficult. For a start, it could create conflicts of interest with his role at Apple. Given the deals that have already been struck between the companies, with Apple carrying some of Disney’s TV shows on the iPod, he will have to maintain an arm’s length relationship in some areas.

Also, allying himself so closely with one of the big media and entertainment concerns could make others less willing to work closely with Apple – although that fear is dismissed by some, who point out that this is little different from his role at Pixar.

“He’s worn two hats for eight years, so the only difference would be that one of his hats had mouse ears,” says Mr McNamee.

More challenging may be the task of accommodating the ideas of a famously strong-willed tech industry visionary.

“In any area he knows about and has something to say, he’s going to dominate the discussion,” says Mr Doherty, adding it would be “a very different Disney board meeting” than those under former CEO Michael Eisner, who was often criticised for running a compliant board.

If anyone can handle Mr Jobs, Mr Iger may be the man, say people who have followed the Disney CEO’s career. Mr Iger’s rise demonstrates his patience and diplomacy, while his actions since becoming CEO have shown his willingness to shake up Disney. Having started in the media world as a television weatherman, Mr Iger was made to cool his heels as Disney considered other candidates to replace Mr Eisner, including Peter Chernin of News Corp.

One of his first moves was to remove Disney’s strategic planning committee, a group that had become loathed within the company because of the tight bureaucratic control it exercised over each business unit.

In meetings with analysts and investors, Mr Iger has explained his vision as using technology to find new ways to distribute the company’s content, and also to improve that content.

Even before his promotion, Mr Iger began to flesh that out in practical terms when he suggested that the traditional film release windows – first theatrical, then home video and then free and pay- television – would be likely to change. The comments, during a Disney earnings call last August, drew outrage from theatre owners, although they have since been endorsed by other media executives, such as Time Warner’s Dick Parsons.

Mr Iger made an even bigger splash in October when he and Mr Jobs teamed up to announce that Disney’s ABC network would sell its top-rated programmes through Apple’s iTunes store. The move may only have been a taste of what is to come.

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