Twice Was Nice For Jamie Kellner

Sep 22, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Jamie Kellner has lost 14 pounds in six months and his blood pressure is down. That is about how long it has been since he chose to end his tenure in a pressure-cooker post running Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting entertainment operations, including CNN, TNT and TBS. He still oversees the TV station group Acme and remains chairman of The WB Network-at least until June, when he officially retires to the good life.

Why would he want out at the top of his profession? “When you are an executive doing the kind of s**t I was doing, you are on a plane three or four days a week, sleeping in a hotel two or three nights a week, and you are just always someplace you don’t want to be,” Mr. Kellner said. “I look at these guys like [Fox’s Rupert] Murdoch and the rest and I scratch my head and think, `These guys are out of their minds.”’

A father of three, married 18 years, Mr. Kellner now spends most of his time with family in Santa Barbara. “I have been invited to do a bunch of things. I tell everybody the same thing. Right now, I am just relaxing and getting myself back to where I can pick up my son from school and spend time with my wife and get healthy. That is my focus. Acme, where I work a few mornings a week. The WB. I go down every Tuesday to the staff meeting, and I’m available by Blackberry or phone all day long. … I am probably working a third to half time.”

Then what legacy does he leave? Mr. Kellner is the only person ever to have been a founder of two broadcast networks. Barry Diller tapped him as president of Fox before there was a Fox, when critics carped that there was no room for a fourth network. (Today there are six.) Mr. Murdoch provided the financing and spirit, and Mr. Diller the super-intellect and Hollywood connection, but it was Mr. Kellner who did a lot of the work. He quarterbacked negotiations to turn a bunch of independent TV stations into Fox affiliates while creating the sales force and overseeing production, marketing and more.

Mr. Diller left Fox first, when Mr. Murdoch refused to share real equity, and Mr. Kellner left not long after. He quickly launched The WB with Time Warner and Tribune. “A couple of things had become clear,” Mr. Kellner said. “One of them was that there was a real demand for younger demographics. We were getting a premium at Fox for selling 18 to 34 adults. Then Fox started moving in a different direction. The opportunity was clear to me. … I thought the young female target was wide open. And it was obvious that you could take start-up television stations or weak stations and with good programming, branding and promotion, you could grow them to be competitive over a period of years with NBC, CBS and even Fox. So there was nothing that could prevent you from succeeding if you stayed in the game long enough and if you could produce programming targeted to the demo I knew advertisers wanted to reach.”

The WB and UPN began about the same time, but it is The WB that soared. It regularly scores in the ratings and became profitable in the past year. Mr. Kellner said he knew Michigan J. Frog’s favorite channel was a winner when “Dawson’s Creek” first had an impact. Warner owns about three-quarters of The WB and Tribune about 24 percent, according to sources, with Mr. Kellner holding a minority interest. Time Warner’s revenue contribution from The WB this year is expected to be about $500 million.

It was his success at The WB that led AOL Time Warner to tap Mr. Kellner to run Turner’s other entertainment assets. At CNN especially, he was always seen as an outsider, even after he moved his family to Atlanta. His tenure was controversial because changes he made to improve production values and bring in news stars were overshadowed by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, recession and Fox News, which took off over the same period.

“It was not what my plan was for my life, to take on those responsibilities,” Mr. Kellner said. “I certainly never believed the stories that said they couldn’t believe Jamie Kellner was going to Atlanta. … They were difficult years because the ad recession kicked in. So instead of looking at things to expand the business, it was more about managing the bottom line, including a lot of cost control and expense reduction, which is never fun to do because it generally affects a lot of people’s lives.”

He downplays rumors of feuds. “There was no control problem. Ted [Turner], the two years I was there, was in the office maybe five, six times. So that is a misconception. I had agreed to two years. That was my contract. I could go one more year, and I elected not to do so.”

Mr. Kellner’s family wanted to return to California. He was already a multimillionaire. “I work for fun, not the money,” he said. It has been quite a rise for Mr. Kellner, born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. He got his first break in a CBS training program for a salary of $1,800 per year in 1969. He spent eight years with Viacom and then struck gold as a founder of Orion’s syndication arm, with shows such as “Hollywood Squares” and reruns of “Saturday Night Live,” which no one thought could be syndicated until Mr. Kellner cut it into 30- and 60-minute shows. He got a percentage of gross profits and it made him very rich by the mid-1980s, when Mr. Diller called about Fox.

As Mr. Kellner bows out of the arena, his accounting shows that he does deserve a major share of credit for launching Fox and most of the credit for The WB, which Mr. Turner, then powerful vice chair and largest stockholder of Time Warner, tried to smother in the crib. “It was a bit disconcerting that the people trying really hard to start the business up had to have a board member criticizing the efforts,” Mr. Kellner recalled.

“Today Ted has told me he thinks we’ve done a great job with The WB,” Mr. Kellner added without rancor. “And he’s proud of it. So I don’t think there was a dispute. He just wanted to go all the way.”

That is just what Mr. Kellner has done, leaving a legacy that is now part of the history of broadcasting. Twice.