NBCU's Steve Burke, Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes Under the Hollywood Microscope
This story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
All media bosses like to say content is king. But at Time Warner and NBCUniversal, the thrones are occupied by executives who lack experience creating movies or, more importantly, television shows. And some in Hollywood believe their recent decisions might be taking a toll on their companies.
Recent awkward transitions at NBCU's broadcast network and Time Warner's Warner Bros. studio illustrate the point. NBCU's Steve Burke, who took the helm more than two years ago, has presided as problems at the troubled NBC have spread from a swooning primetime to chaos in the morning, with Today slipping from first place after the clumsy dismissal of Ann Curry. With those issues unresolved, NBC has undertaken a risky change at the still-leading Tonight Show.
Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes, meanwhile, has during the past two years overseen what was widely panned as a distracting and destructive competition among the top three Warner Bros. executives to lead the studio. In late January, Bewkes finally gave the nod to home entertainment president Kevin Tsujihara, who, like Bewkes, lacks experience creating content.
It's early days for Tsujihara, but sources say tensions run high at Warners, and it is unclear whether either or both of the losing contenders, television chief Bruce Rosenblum and film head Jeff Robinov, will remain long. Many industry observers have felt Rosenblum's departure is inevitable (his contract is up in August, and his rivalry with Tsujihara is said to be especially bitter). But many also assumed Warners would make every effort to keep Robinov, whose contract is said to be up in December. Despite a weak start to 2013 with flops including Gangster Squad and Jack the Giant Slayer (from the studio's New Line label), Robinov during his tenure has overseen successful and eclectic films including The Hangover, The Dark Knight and recent Oscar winner Argo.
Robinov has declared his intention to stay, but sources say it is far from clear he will. Asked about the situation, Tsujihara tells THR: "Jeff's under contract for a period of time going through next year. We're having constructive, good conversations about how to best proceed. I have a lot of respect for his team, and we're trying to figure out the best way to go forward." (Asked to clarify whether Robinov's contract has been or could be extended into 2014, Tsujihara declined comment.)
If Tsujihara does want to keep his film chief on the job -- as some sources believe -- he might be hobbled by Robinov's somewhat awkward personality. And Robinov might be having difficulty digesting his disappointment. Having been passed over for the top job, several sources say he has made an unsuccessful push to be appointed Tsujihara's No. 2. As this drama plays out, the studio has been buzzing with rumors that Toby Emmerich, who runs New Line, could be promoted to a bigger job -- possibly in tandem with another film executive.
Emmerich, who can claim credit for New Line's $1 billion-grossing The Hobbit, has good relationships with Tsujihara and Bewkes. But a leading agent echoes the opinion of many executives and talent representatives: "Toby is an excellent politician. He's great at networking in the company, [but] Toby has nowhere near the portfolio that Jeff does, nowhere near the track record." The fact that New Line just stumbled with Jack, which stands to lose more than $125 million, hardly helps. (Part of that loss will be borne by Legendary Pictures, which partnered on the film.) Nonetheless, intrigue at the studio is such that Legendary's Thomas Tull -- whose company provides significant financing for Warners and whose deal is up at the end of this year -- is said to be supportive of Emmerich while actively campaigning for Robinov's ouster.)
What grates on some executives within and outside the studio is a sense that Bewkes remains almost indifferent to the outcome. "Based on how he's handled this stuff in the past, it's unlikely he'll handle it well now," says one Warners veteran. That would seem to leave Tsujihara largely and awkwardly on his own if he wants to avoid losing the heads of both the film and television divisions in his first year.
The management of Warners is potentially far more significant to Time Warner's bottom line than the impact NBC's problems could have on parent Comcast. As analyst Matthew Harrigan of Wunderlich Securities notes, NBC isn't hurting the cable giant's bottom line, even though he estimates the broadcast network lost about $300 million in 2012 (an improvement from the $500 million he thinks it lost the year before). But that doesn't mean Burke's boss, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, isn't paying close attention to the recent stumbles. "It's a matter of public image," says Harrigan, "and Comcast is an extremely image-conscious company."
Having stayed out of the public eye during his first two years on the job, Burke has placed himself in the middle of the broadcast network's affairs in recent months. He boasted in the fall when NBC briefly bounced to No. 1 in primetime in the 18-to-49 demo. But once The Voice and Sunday Night Football were off the schedule, the network fell hard and fast.
Burke went public about the Today debacle in a March 13 interview with The Daily Beast, dismissing as "ridiculous" speculation that the network would replace Matt Lauer. And on April 3, Burke stepped into the limelight with respect to the Tonight Show transition, explaining to The New York Times how he shut down a brewing public battle with Jay Leno. Burke appears to have defused tension over the transition, but as one veteran studio boss observes, Jimmy Fallon has big shoes to fill on Tonight.
"Burke is out in front of it in The New York Times, just like he was with Lauer and just like he was with the schedule before it tanked," said this person. "Let's see how it works."
For Burke and Bewkes, the challenge is finding a sweet spot between overmanagement and not managing enough.