The Pit, the Pendulum and Michael Eisner

The former Disney executive's talk show debut receives a surprisingly warm welcome from journalists and critics, who grudgingly admit there's a certain charm to his bulldozing impatience.

The American media generally falls into two camps: content providers, and business managers who come up with godforsaken terms like “content providers.”

Last night, Michael Eisner, former head of Disney and ABC, officially switched teams, making his content-providing debut as a talk show host on CNBC. If nothing else, the first episode of Conversations With Michael Eisner would seem like the perfect opportunity for those in the creative class to lash out at one of their former overlords — to point out that managing creativity is not the same as being creative and that packaging entertainment is not the same as entertaining.

Yet Eisner has received a surprisingly warm welcome from journalists and critics, who for the most part grudgingly admit that there is a certain charm to Eisner’s style, a je ne sais quoi to his bulldozing impatience on camera.

“How is he?” asks Newsday. “Surprisingly good, though Mike the Neophyte does (at times) seem uncomfortable and even a little eccentric. Producers clearly directed him to ‘talk about himself,’ and sometimes we may learn a little, ummm, too much.”

Conversations proves two things,” writes Paul Brownfield in the Los Angeles Times. “Anybody can get a talk show on CNBC — though it helps if you have a bazillion dollars and eccentric friends — and two, moguls like Eisner are super-salespeople who understand that the American public will always fall for the plain speaker, no matter what you say to the people you actually work with.”

“The conversation between Eisner and [Martha] Stewart is impossibly chirpy (you’re a scary micro-manager? I’m a scary micro-manager too!), though amusing for that,” he adds.

“Mr. Eisner’s curiosity is animated by the whiff of opportunism,” David Carr writes in the New York Times. “He inserts himself into the picture, and is not apt to spend a great deal of time listening to answers. Many chief executives proceed Socratically, asking question after question, while acting autocratically, and Mr. Eisner is no exception. But he still has access to the A-list and a peer relationship that adds texture to the tired talk show trope.”

“In a format that prizes an ability to emulate warmth and humanity, Mr. Eisner would seem an odd choice,” adds Carr.

Yet from where we sit at CJR Daily, it is precisely Eisner’s lack of warmth — perfectly reflected in the show’s spare metallic set — that ultimately might make the show worth watching. In the first episode, Eisner is at his least interesting when engaging in chit-chat with Martha Stewart. He’s at his best when he interrupts his guests, waving his hands manically in the air, plowing through the interview like a man who is accustomed to having a long line of people waiting for a few short moments of his time.

Cut out the half-hearted stabs at conviviality, and Eisner could transform himself into a captivating host. What could be more entertaining, after all, than watching a former wolf of the boardroom redirect his fat-cutting mojo away from his “content-producing” underlings and toward the bloated ruminations of his “content-managing” guests?

One suggestion: CNBC might want to consider a name change. “Interrogations With Michael Eisner” has a nice ring to it.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.