Sir Howard Stringer, US Head Of Sony: Sony's knight buys Tinseltown dream

By Katherine Griffiths

Saturday 18 September 2004 00:00

When a bright, middle-class Oxford graduate called Howard Stringer set out for America from his home in Aylesbury in 1965 to find a job, it was the stuff of movies which attracted him. "It seemed a land full of opportunity and I was very curious," he says.

When a bright, middle-class Oxford graduate called Howard Stringer set out for America from his home in Aylesbury in 1965 to find a job, it was the stuff of movies which attracted him. "It seemed a land full of opportunity and I was very curious," he says.

Several decades on, and as head of Sony in the US and No 3 in the whole entertainment and technology empire, Sir Howard - he was knighted in 1999 - can reasonably claim to have one of the most powerful jobs in his adopted country.

The influence of the position is not lost on the 62-year-old, who was born in Cardiff, and educated on a scholarship at the public school, Oundle.

"The Sony brand is more successful in the US than anywhere because it is such a media society. Sony is connected to everything. You cannot look anywhere without seeing Sony movies, or Sony music, Sony this or Sony that," he says, from his base in Sony's state of the art offices on Madison Avenue, New York.

Sir Howard's role is about to get even bigger, as he is on the verge of clinching a deal for Sony and a consortium of partners to pay almost $5bn for MGM, Hollywood's only remaining independent film studio.

The acquisition was being hammered out in Beverly Hills this week after Sony's rival, Time Warner, dropped out of the bidding. Barring last minute glitches, it will hand Sony control of some of the most well-known and commercially successful films ever made, including the James Bond and Pink Panther series, and Woody Allen's Annie Hall. The two companies' cinematic libraries together will include about half of the films shot in colour that have ever been made.

Sir Howard will not speak about the deal, because the dotted line is yet to be signed. But he is a zealot when it comes to the rationale for such a deal: to have under one roof both cutting-edge technology and high quality entertainment, factual programmes and news that will hopefully compel customers to turn to Sony rather than one its rivals. "There is an evolution, breaking down silo walls between software, engineering and entertainment. Apple's iPod is the classic example. They use the content to sell iPods. The only difference is in our case is we want to sell content as well. The relationship has to be more of a marriage."

There is a lot riding on his judgement being correct. Sony has been under pressure to improve its performance, especially in its core electronics division after the so-called "Sony shock" of last year, when it unveiled an unexpectedly large operating loss.

The company has also had its fingers burned in its first foray into the world of movies, when it paid a massive price for Columbia studios in the 1980s.

"Sony had owned content but it was an embarrassment in the early years. They were ripped off by the Americans and lost a lot of money. But it has been more profitable it recent years and the credibility of owning content has gone up within Sony," he says. Last year, of the $20bn the US business contributes to Sony's $60bn revenues.

While Sony is putting only $300m of its own money for MGM, the total sum of almost $5bn is seen by some analysts as a high price, leaving Sony under pressure to deliver a hefty return to its private equity partners who are providing the rest of the cash. Critics also say it will hand Sony too large a share of the films currently in existence.

It is an issue on which Sir Howard has long campaigned, saying that bringing software and content together helps preserve the long-term health of the creative industries because it encourages the development of ways to combat piracy. "We have got to ensure copyright protection otherwise it doesn't make sense to own them. That is the lasting legacy," he says.

Tokyo's backing of the MGM deal reflects the fact that Sir Howard's star is still rising within Sony. It also highlights his passion for the painstaking process of making quality programmes.

Before joining Sony in May 1997, Sir Howard worked his way up to being the president of the American TV network CBS, the company which gave him his first job when he arrived from Britain. It was a time when American television was still dominated by just a handful of stations, and when there was no competition from the multi-media alternatives that Sir Howard is now a champion of.

"When I was producing CBS's evening news, everyone in Washington and the White House watched it," he says.

It was at CBS that he worked closely with Dan Rather, the TV news veteran who is currently under fire for presenting a 60 Minutes documentary raising new questions about George Bush's record in the Texas National Guard.

Sir Howard is quick to defend his old network and his old friends. He is also deeply critical of attempts by conservative groups, associated with the Bush campaign, to pick holes in Mr Kerry's service record in Vietnam. "It is sickening and mysterious that people can challenge the record of a man who has a Silver Heart and was obviously courageous."

It is something Sir Howard knows something about, having been drafted just six weeks after setting foot in the US to serve in its army in Vietnam. He says it was "not pleasant", but an "oddly rewarding" way to get to know your new countrymen.

After almost a year in Vietnam, he returned to CBS. It was a glittering rise, which saw the network reach No 1 in prime time ratings. But then ratings began to fall, in part because CBS lost the right to broadcast National League football. Sir Howard left in 1995. Not usually lost for words, he apparently wept at a farewell reception hosted by one of his closest colleagues.

Sir Howard is a lot smoother in his recollection of that time now."I was giving the Agincourt speech to the channels of all stations which carried CBS programmes and I thought to myself 'I can't do this any more'. The audience is no longer passively waiting at 6.30pm or 7pm for the news. Editors of network news do not have control of the audience in the same way any more. That may be for the better, but it is much less fun," he says.

After CBS he had his first flirtation with new technology, joining an ultimately ill-fated venture called Tele-TV, which was trying to sell customers internet and television via their phone lines. "We were 10 years too early and a dollar short," says Sir Howard.

But it gave him valuable exposure to the possibilities of binding software together with content, leading to his job at Sony. There he has a demanding schedule, particularly because his family returned to the UK a year ago, and he makes fortnightly return trips to Oxfordshire to see them.

Sir Howard has considered returning for good. He was considered as a possible director general of the BBC, both when Sir John Birt left in 1999 and in its more recent leadership crisis. He is in favour of the BBC. "It is trying to be objective and it has enough coverage of issues to show its mind is not made up on something".

He is less complementary about British newspapers: "The New York Times is ridiculed in the UK for trying to be a newspaper of record. In Britain there are all those national newspapers that are vying for the slightly diminishing audience and anything goes," he says.

His long-term plan still seems to be to return. He already sits on the board of the hotels group InterContinental, which earlier this week ousted its chief executive, Richard North. The former rugby blue says he also "roots for Britain" in the Olympics.

He says it would be "very hard to walk away from this kind of experience" at Sony, especially at the moment, and vows to " carry on for as long as it does not effect my health". But, he adds: "It is not an indefinite stay."

A Life In Media

Age: 62

Education: Scholarship to Oundle School. MA in history from Merton College, Oxford University.

Career: Arrived in America in 1965, employed by CBS. Six weeks later, drafted to serve in Vietnam for almost a year. Returned to CBS, becoming head of CBS News in 1984 and president of the group in 1988. Left in 1995 to set up Tele-TV, which folded two years later. Joined Sony in May 1997 as president of US business. Made a Sony group executive officer in May 1998.

Hobbies: Collecting rare books, which he keeps at his home in Oxfordshire.

Family: Married to Dr Jennifer Patterson, a dermatologist. They have two children.

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