Changing of the Turner guard

Feb 24, 2003  •  Post A Comment

From the moment Hollywood insider Jamie Kellner moved to Atlanta to oversee the Turner Broadcasting System, he was a lightning rod for critics and the CNN old guard, especially after a controversial remake of the all-news network that included the hiring of high-profile personalities such as Connie Chung.
As Mr. Kellner turns over the reins to Philip Kent, however, he leaves a much healthier and more profitable enterprise, even if some of his most ambitious ideas, such as a merger of CNN with ABC News, never came to fruition.
Almost immediately Mr. Kellner will depart Turner and Atlanta, where he never really took root, to return to Hollywood and his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. He will continue as chairman and CEO of The WB Network, which he founded, until his contract runs out in 2004.
“It is my intention to end my career at that point,” Mr. Kellner told a telephone press conference, in which Mr. Kent and Jeffrey Bewkes, chairman of AOL Time Warner’s Entertainment and Networks Group, also participated last week.
Mr. Kellner leaves with CNN dogged by its frequent defeat in the ratings by Fox News, which is much more driven by personalities with a strong point of view. What is less visible is that CNN, which remains dedicated to fair and unbiased reporting, has seen an increase in ratings almost across the board on Mr. Kellner’s watch and is now considered to be much more profitable than it was when he arrived. CNN now has more specific shows that are drawing a regular audience, such as “American Morning with Paula Zahn, and a much more sophisticated and some would say glitzier look.
Executive bonhomie
The other networks that Mr. Kellner has overseen, including TNT, the Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies, have also seen improved ratings, although the WTBS Superstation continues to struggle and lose audience. Mr. Kellner has had little impact on the company’s trio of sports teams, including the Atlanta Braves, whom many analysts now believe Mr. Kent will look to sell to help AOL Time Warner reduce its huge debt.
TNT in particular has benefited from Mr. Kellner’s Hollywood connections, with a program of original movies and hit series such as “Charmed” that were repurposed from their network runs.
Both Mr. Kellner and Mr. Bewkes agreed that the programming and promotional cooperation between The WB and Cartoon Network would continue. “It’s working well for them,” Mr. Kellner said. And the two agreed there would be even more cooperation in the future.
“Definitely,” Mr. Kellner replied when asked if his inability to convince Madison Avenue to raise cable costs per thousand somewhat closer to parity with broadcast was a source of frustration. He also discounted press speculation that he and Mr. Bewkes were at odds. “Jeff and I have never had a bad word. Ever,” Mr. Kellner said.
Mr. Bewkes also confirmed that Mr. Kellner and other senior executives at The WB recently received a total payout for their stake in the network of $128 million. According to reports, approximately half of that amount went to Mr. Kellner himself, though both he and Mr. Bewkes declined to provide specific figures.
Frog legacy
The rumors that Mr. Kellner might depart Turner began even before the payout, following Robert Pittman’s and Gerald Levin’s departures from AOL Time Warner. Mr. Pittman and Mr. Levin had both played a central role in bringing in Mr. Kellner. The rumors heated up in recent weeks after CNN founder Ted Turner abruptly quit as vice chairman of the parent company. Mr. Turner was never a fan of Mr. Kellner, going back to the founding of The WB Network, which Mr. Turner opposed. He preferred that all efforts and resources go into building up the existing Turner networks.
As Mr. Kellner returns to The WB, which ultimately is likely to be considered his greatest legacy. The network fronted by Michigan J. Frog has turned the corner and is now profitable. Thanks to some improved programming and a hot scatter market at a time other major networks are sold out of ads, The WB is expected to show a profit of at least $5 million this year after start-up losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As part of the change, The WB will now once again report to Warner Bros., overseen by studio head Barry Meyer, a former lawyer who rose up the ranks on the TV side of Warner Bros.
Mr. Bewkes saluted Mr. Kellner’s accomplishments, saying he was leaving the various Turner businesses in a “very strong position.” And Mr. Kellner said the recent collapse of the proposed merger between CNN and ABC News, which he had advocated, had nothing to do with his decision to step down.
Mr. Bewkes said that Ted Turner’s views-the founder of CNN has long been an opponent of The WB as well as of Mr. Kellner’s stewardship of CNN-had nothing to do with Mr. Kellner’s resignation. Mr. Kellner said he was “disappointed” by the failure of the merger proposal, but his resignation was the result of his desire to spend more time with his family and to return to California.
“I’m 10 years older and I need more sleep than I think I’d get if I tried to do another network,” Mr. Kellner said, referring to his having been a senior member of the teams that started The WB and before it Fox Broadcasting. “That’s enough for me,” he said.
Wants to advise
Mr. Kellner will continue as CEO and chairman of Acme Communications, The WB’s third-largest station group. He also expressed hope that, after his retirement, from time to time he would be called on as a kitchen-cabinet-style advisor to the network.
Mr. Kellner tried to show his involvement with CNN, despite the backroom grumbling. In the summer of 2001, during a private dinner with reporters and others in a posh restaurant high above Chicago, Mr. Kellner had gone out of his way to pledge his allegiance to CNN and the values it represented. How loyal was he? If he had a tattoo on his backside, Mr. Kellner said sardonically at the time, it would say “CNN.”
Among those who departed during his tenure was Mr. Kent, who had been president and chief operating officer of the CNN News Group. Mr. Kent recalled that he had resigned in 2001 because his job had been “marginalized” after he was turned down for the top spot at the news network, which went to Walter Isaacson, who also is leaving. Mr. Isaacson will run the Aspen Institute think tank. “I just felt the right thing to do was take myself out of the picture [in 2001],” Mr. Kent said.
Mr. Kellner’s team plunged into a remake of the network. They built a state-of-the-art news studio in Manhattan, which increased CNN’s visibility. They refashioned Headline News, brought in flashy new graphics and new news readers, including Andrea Thompson, an ex-actress with little news experience who soon left, and got roundly criticized for it, even though the ratings ticked up.
Critics, among them Mr. Turner, complained that CNN had lost its way, focusing on personalities rather than old-fashioned journalism. While CNN remained second in the ratings to FNC, it was still ahead of CNBC and MSNBC and other competitors. The demographic profile of its audience improved, along with the premiums advertisers paid to reach them. The network remained solidly profitable.
Veterans of the Time Warner side of the fractious corporate family joined with the CNN old guard to cheer the return of Mr. Kent, who has a reputation of being collaborative and who, as a former Creative Artists agent, is practiced in many of the areas Mr. Kellner has overseen, especially talent.
Asked to say what Mr. Kellner’s legacy would be, Mr. Kent replied that he had “raised the bar on all the presentational aspects” of CNN and the other Turner networks, and specifically pointed to the new CNN studio facility in Manhattan. Mr. Kent also said that he would “absolutely” keep the current CNN leadership team. According to Mr. Bewkes, Mr. Turner is “quite happy” with Mr. Kent’s ascension.
There were immediate questions about the future of the handful of close lieutenants brought to Atlanta by Mr. Kellner, including Garth Ancier, who oversees pro
gramming for the entertainment networks; Brad Turrell, who oversees TBS public relations and communications; and programming executive David Neuman who, despite having no news background, had helped Mr. Kellner make major changes in CNN’s on-air look and talent lineup.
Challenges ahead
Curiously, Mr. Kent will now face the mirror image of the defining challenge that faced Mr. Kellner. Where Mr. Kellner had to prove his news bona fides, Mr. Kent has to show that he knows how to go Hollywood. He has to succeed where Mr. Kellner himself was unable to, and find hit original series for TNT and TBS, just the way the Turner entertainment networks’ chief competitors have-USA with “Monk” and “Dead Zone,” and FX with “The Shield.”
On the question of whether or not CNN is for sale for the right price, Mr. Bewkes told a press conference questioner, “I can’t answer that `yes,”’ because that would incite press speculation about a change in the company’s position. He did add that the AOL TW board and management had a responsibility to take “motivating” offers seriously. He concluded by saying, “If you’re asking if we’re putting [CNN] up for sale, the answer is no.”
-With contributions by Alex Ben Block