Kellner boldly assumes hot seat at Turner

Mar 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Oh, sure, everybody tosses around adjectives like “visionary” when they talk about Jamie Kellner now that he’s built and branded two networks that proved there were new ways to give the gray-hairs of broadcasting a demographic-specific run for their advertising money.
However, it wasn’t always that way.
“Let me assure you, back about 14 or 15 years ago, when I told my mother I was quitting my job to start the Fox network, she told me there was no way that could ever succeed,” the new chairman of Turner Broadcasting said last week.
“Every time I do anything, people generally say it can’t be done,” Mr. Kellner said the day after he’d received his new title at Turner Broadcasting. He will oversee an expanded division that would consolidate all of AOL Time Warner’s advertiser-supported cable and broadcast properties, from The WB to CNN/SI, along with the Atlanta Hawks, Braves and Thrashers.
The early reviews were in the consumer and trade press, and they were glowing. Mr. Kellner was described as affable, aggressive and, yes, visionary.
Not one suggested Mr. Kellner was in over his head.
Indeed, most were quick to agree he’s just the man to build an infrastructure that will make the Turner TV empire part of the solution instead of a problem child that has been regarded as having both the most to gain from, and the most resistance to, improvement.
Those who know the 53-year-old Mr. Kellner, his mandate and the players on his new turf, expect him to make changes soon.
“These guys are pretty well-known to him,” said one source familiar with the resistance Mr. Kellner has met with Turner executives repeatedly in his attempts to find synergies between The WB and Kids’ WB and the Turner channels, such as Cartoon Network.
Simultaneous with the announcement of Mr. Kellner’s ascension was the exit of Steven Heyer, the Turner lieutenant who had, in the words of one insider, “been trying to kill Jamie” at every turn after the merger of Time Warner and Turner’s empire. (Mr. Heyer landed the next day at Coca-Cola, where he’s in charge of developing new products.)
On the other hand, Terry McGuirk, the 28-year Turner veteran who stepped back to vice chairman-a title he’ll share with Turner veteran Wayne Pace-when Mr. Kellner assumed Mr. McGuirk’s old title of chairman, had been considered collegial and reasonable, as had Brad Siegel, the Turner general entertainment networks president.
True to the adjectives people use to describe him, Mr. Kellner gracefully declined to dwell on negatives in a telephone interview.
“Everybody’s been incredibly welcoming to me, including Ted,” said Mr. Kellner, referring to the founder of Turner Broadcasting who had tried mightily to undermine Mr. Kellner’s WB.
“He disagreed with a strategy, and in some ways that hurt my feelings at the time, but everybody doesn’t have to believe in the same thing,” he said. “At the end of the day, he’s a big guy and he welcomed me here, and I think that says it all.”
Mr. Kellner said Mr. Turner had insisted only that Mr. Kellner relocate to Atlanta from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.
In the short term, Mr. Kellner is not going to have much time at home. Last Thursday, he was in New York for twice-monthly meetings of the AOL Time Warner CEOs and Co-Chief Operating Officer Bob Pittman.
Merrill Lynch analysts Henry Blodget and Jessica Reif Cohen declared Mr. Kellner “a perfect fit” for a bigger role on Mr. Pittman’s team.
The analysts cited Mr. Kellner’s track record as a brand builder and entrepreneur. In addition to launching Fox, Fox Kids, The WB and Kids’ WB, he also figured out how to use cable to expand local broadcasters’ reach with Fox Net and The WB 100+ Station Group.
“I was soundly criticized by the Fox affiliates 10 years ago as a turncoat for embracing the cable industry,” he said.
But through those moves, he developed a beneficial relationship with cable pioneer John Malone, another visionary who knew how to convert vision to reality.
He’ll continue to own 11 percent of The WB, as well as serve as chairman and CEO of ACME Communications Group, the station group that includes nine WB affiliates and one affiliate of UPN, whose COO, Adam Ware, got his broadcasting break at Fox under Mr. Kellner.
The highly competitive Mr. Ware retains a real appreciation for Mr. Kellner’s “passion” and for his “excellent track record for creating value for cable systems. “He really kind of gets that language,” he said.
Mr. Kellner, who had tried to make The WB a network at which there were no executive titles, said, “I’m more in the middle than either a broadcast or a cable guy. To me it’s all about programming, not how it gets into the household.
“I think that in the future, there’ll be more people in that position than on either the cable side or the broadcast side.”
It’s certain that in the future there’ll be only people in that position on his Turner team.