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USA Networks' Other Blunt Barry

Media: He's smart, decisive and has ruffled more than a few feathers. Barry Baker may be just the seasoned hand that Barry Diller needs to bring focus to his disparate company.


Walt Disney Co.'s Michael Eisner doesn't have one. Neither does Sumner Redstone, the chairman and chief executive of Viacom Inc.

But Barry Diller does. And in naming a forceful executive with visionary tendencies as his No. 2 at USA Networks Inc., Diller is winning applause from management experts for taking an initiative that many other media moguls have not--leaving their entertainment companies vulnerable at the top.

Since Diller last month named Barry Baker president and chief operating officer of his fast-growing cable, broadcasting, Internet and electronic retailing company, some in Hollywood have taken to referring to the USA team as "Barry squared" because of similarities that go beyond their first names.

Baker, 46, is described by television executives with adjectives that could as easily suit his new boss: smart, tough, decisive, demanding, entrepreneurial, opinionated and creative. The two Barrys even share a style that some in Hollywood find offensive: Both can be unflinchingly blunt.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 26, 1999 Home Edition Business Part C Page 3 Financial Desk 2 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
USA Networks executive--A story in the March 21 Business section about the new president of USA Networks Inc., Barry Baker, misstated the start-up capital he used to form River City Broadcasting. Baker raised $5.5 million to start the company, which he sold in 1995 for $1.5 billion.

"You don't leave a meeting wondering what Barry thinks," said one television executive who has a long history with Baker, a self-made millionaire who built Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcasting Group into one of the nation's most influential TV operators before resigning last month and becoming Diller's No. 2. "If he doesn't like you or your idea, he tells you. While his gruff approach can ruffle feathers and upset some people, I don't think he is going to hurt Diller's feelings."

Indeed, one executive who knows them both predicts a certain amount of volatility: "It's Attila the Hun meets Genghis Khan," he said.

Yet analysts say Baker is just the seasoned hand Diller needs to hone USA after a period of rapid-fire expansion. USA now includes Ticketmaster, the Home Shopping Network, the Sci-Fi Channel, USA Network, TV stations, a TV production arm, the CitySearch online local service guides and some online shopping sites.

Over the last three years, Diller has brought together this disparate clutch of assets with the vision of developing electronic retailing as a third revenue stream as traditional advertising and cable subscription fees come under pressure.

But USA has fallen behind in making some of these assets work, even as Wall Street has bid up USA's market value to more than $13 billion on the basis of Diller's visionary talents, not counting a proposed purchase of the Lycos search engine that would take it to more than $18 billion. Diller is credited with building the Fox network for News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch.


Sources say the development of programs in-house for both USA's stations and cable channels has bogged down because of turf wars. The much-heralded CityVision format emphasizing local programming for its TV stations has been such a disappointment that Diller has returned to a conventional mix of sports, movies and network reruns, only to be outbid for the best shows by larger station groups such as Tribune, Fox and Disney's ABC.

Though Home Shopping is a huge cash generator, it hasn't flourished in league with rival QVC. James Held was fired earlier this month as chief of the shopping channel.

In addition to getting the divisions to work independently and together, Baker said, his job is to drive the people buying tickets and watching USA's television stations and cable channels to the Internet shopping mall it is building.

Baker's arrival also frees Diller to focus on strategy and deal-making. Diller has kicked the tires of the NBC and CBS networks, CBS' cable holdings and Cablevision Systems Corp.'s national cable channels. Diller has an agreement in principle to acquire Universal Studios' 51% stake in specialty film distributor October Films as well as the domestic assets of PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Sources say that within the last two weeks, USA has offered to buy Cablevision's Bravo channel for a steep $800 million as an outlet for movies and arts programming.


Rumors have circulated recently about a merger with Sinclair, whose 64 television and 54 radio stations would combine with USA's 13 TV stations with little overlap. Baker would not comment.

Baker could even buffer Diller's abrasive style. Though Baker is considered a tough negotiator and boss and is referred to by some on Wall Street as "the Godfather" because of his intimidating, gravelly voice, people who have known him for decades say he is also fun-loving, gregarious, personable and fair-minded.

"People who work for Barry [Baker] go through walls for him," said Michael Lambert, a Los Angeles station owner and close friend of Baker's who formed a program-buying cooperative whose station members include Sinclair and at one time also included River City Broadcasting, the radio and TV station group Baker built and sold to Sinclair in 1995 for $1.2 billion.

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