Here's an awesome idea for a TV reality show: make real companies hire and fire top executives who are selected by live TV game shows! It's fiendishly simple.
In the "Survivor: CEO" segment, moguls are locked up in an unthinkably awful setting – the coach section of a commercial aircraft – and vote themselves off the plane, and parachute out.
The casualties could be replaced on "American Mogul," where TV-landers could vote online for their favorite executives after watching them negotiate golden parachutes, outfox wily auditors and tell whoppers to stock analysts.
And for jumbo laughs, "Joe CEO" would set up some multinational to hire a CEO who is really a Marxist sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz! Hidden cameras would catch every wacky misadventure on tape.
Our crack research department says this is too much like real life to get big ratings.
It's been manic in corporate front offices lately, but nowhere more than at the big media companies that gossip columnists and business reporters like to write about and I like to read about.
Steve Case, who ran AOL and bought Time-Warner at the top of the tech bubble, is voted off the island, a loser with a consolation prize of only his hundreds of millions. He follows castaways Gerald Levin, Robert Pittman and scads of supporting players.
Out goes the boss at CNN, Walter Isaacson, who's going to run a think tank. At Sony Records, out goes the former Mr. Mariah Carey, Tommy Mottola; in comes the ex-boss at NBC and NBC News, Andrew Lack. A natural fit, right?
Euro-media moguls Thomas Middlehoff and Jean-Marie Messier are gone from their Euro-companies. The head of Compaq, which merged with Hewlett-Packard, left to run Worldcom, which doesn't really exist anymore but will still pay him gazillions.
The business pages are getting a lot like the sports pages. Everyone is a free agent. Everyone gets a signing bonus. Teams are out; players are in. Coaches lose, and they get fired. In San Francisco, if they win they get fired, just ask Dusty Baker and Steve Mariucci.
But maybe the sports world has something to teach the business world and maybe even the other big institutions in public life.
In sports, the worst team gets the first pick in the draft. We ought to try that out in real life. The organizations that are really hurting – like Enron and AOL – should get the first chance to land top talent. Doing it in a draft would be fun for the whole country.
Any unsigned past, present or future big cheeses could declare themselves eligible for the CEO Draft. But as in sports, if you want to play in the big leagues, you can only play for the team that drafts you.
Based on 2002 performance and the available talent, I think the draft would look something like this:
2003 Mock CEO Draft
1. The Catholic Church, Jimmy Carter: The Nobel Peace Prize is the perfect resume-topper for this Baptist who could snap the Catholic malaise.
2. Enron, Donald Trump: Trump can get Enron HQ declared to be Native-American property and then turn it into a casino.
3. Martha Stewart Omnimedia, Tina Brown: Who else? The no-brainer pick of the draft.
4. AOL Time Warner, Bill Clinton: They've got the money to sign him and he's led bigger turnarounds than this.
5. National Association of Stock Analysts, Bill Cosby: Desperation move for a team that needs a new identity.
6. Tyco, Jesse Jackson:This synonym for scandal pins its hopes on a massive worldwide boycott of something for some reason.
7. Michael Jackson Inc., LeBron James: After the baby-on-a-balcony stunt, best chance is to go ahead and complete the morphing process; James is a basketball phenom guaranteed to make a mint and Jackson should simply assume his identity.
8. Democratic Party, Tony Blair: Dems can't get a U.S. general with name ID, but are lucky to get a star who can shoot from the right and center at #8.
9. United Airlines, John Glenn:Duh.
10. The 92nd St. Y Pre-School, Mr. Rodgers:The perfect guy to take this posh kindergarten public with a splashy IPO.
11. Lizzie Grubman Public Relations, former Illinois Gov. George Ryan: Perfect fit to target the clemency and redemption market.
12. Embassy of Saudi Arabia, Wayne Gretzky: Be honest: the only foreigners Americans really like are Canadians. Gretzky gets the Saudis skating again.
Now if Las Vegas can figure out a way to gamble on this, we'll have some real fun.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer