The next Ted Turner?

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

In this day and age, when more business is conducted by phone, fax and e-mail than across a conference table, who’s to know whether the guy in charge looks like a kid?
David Rudolph, the founding general manager of Turner South-the first regional entertainment basic-cable network and a likely model for other regional-identity networks to come-is a decision-maker, personable, polite and proper, and all of 27 years old.
“A lot of the preliminary discussions I have are by phone or e-mail,” Mr. Rudolph said. “A lot of times when I walk in, jaws kind of drop to the floor.”
He remembers one particular months-long phone relationship with a silver fox of an executive. “We were finally going to get together in person,” he recalled. “I walked into the conference room, and this gentleman assumed that I was my assistant and said, `Would you get me some water?’
“I played along and came back with the water,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes you can use that as an advantage. You come back and throw them off their game.”
Mr. Rudolph, right out of college, started in Turner’s strategic planning department, where he came up with 15 business plans for new ventures. But only the concept for Turner South made the cut. “There were a lot of bad ideas” among the 15, he said, singling out his holistic-medicine network as perhaps the worst of the bunch. One other idea that got a pass then was for a true-crime network; now, of course, there’s Court TV, and more true-crime networks are on the way.
When he started at Turner, “I didn’t know a thing about the television industry,” he readily admitted. But working alongside Ted Turner, Terry McGuirk and Brad Siegel amounted to a crash course in the business. And when it came time to launch the Turner South network, with its sports programming and down-home feel, as the man who came up with the idea, Mr. Rudolph got the call to run it.
The green light to launch came in February 1999. On Oct. 1 of that year, the network was already up and running. Since then, Mr. Rudolph, who had never been on an ad-sales call before launching Turner South, has been learning his business on the fly and depending on a team that includes executives as much as 25 years his senior who report to him.
Soon the original business plan went by the wayside, he said. “Revenue, bottom line, numbers of subs, number of advertisers-we’re so far ahead of where I thought we’d be.”
“Someday [age is] not going to be an issue anymore,” Mr. Rudolph said. “I would rather be known five years from now, instead of [as] one of the youngest, as one of the best. That’s really my goal.”
This fall, his network, currently in about 5.5 million homes across six Southern states, will celebrate its second birthday. Less than two weeks before that, Mr. Rudolph will turn 28.