Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes: 'Netflix Is Our Friend'

2. Jeff Bewkes
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Chairman and CEO of Time Warner

From the Time Warner Center in Midtown Manhattan, Bewkes oversees Hollywood's most profitable studio, Warner Bros., which has scored with the Harry Potter juggernaut; cable networks including HBO, CNN, TNT and TBS; and increasingly digital magazines including Time, People and Sports Illustrated. Bewkes led Time Warner to $5.4 billion in operating profit last year, exceeded only by West Coast-based Disney.

With other industry moguls in the audience, he also tells an annual UBS investor conference that advertising trends in the first quarter of 2012 feel stronger than in the current fourth quarter.

NEW YORK - "Netflix is our friend," Time Warner chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes said here at an investor conference Tuesday, drawing a round of laughs.

His comments came during a lunchtime keynote appearance at the 39th annual UBS Global Media and Communications Conference where he was asked about Netflix and his past comments about the online video streamer, which have included comparisons to the Albanian army. But the TW boss this time said: "It's true. We are partners."

And he quipped: "The Albanian army did actually take over the world. Alexander the Great...close." Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is scheduled to appear at the UBS conference later in the day. CBS Corp. president and CEO Leslie Moonves earlier in the conference day had similarly said that his company wants Netflix, which has paid good money for library content, to succeed and be healthy.

Bewkes' lunch session was attended by a range of media moguls, including Warner Music Group owner Len Blavatnik, who briefly spoke to the TW boss after his appearance, Harvey Weinstein, Tennis Channel boss Ken Solomon and former Sundance Channel CEO Larry Aidem who is now president and CEO of Iconic Entertainment.

Bewkes reiterated that such digital distributors as Netflix and Amazon.com "can actually add value to all of us." But he once again said digital distributors are the natural place for library content or, as he called it, "bin collections" or an interface to find things.

Discussing advertising trends, Bewkes said scatter ad prices are up double digits over the upfront. The fourth quarter has been "a bit softer," partly because some marketers pulled ads into the upfront, but the first quarter looks "pretty good," he said. "We're looking fine for the first quarter," Bewkes summarized. "We're happy to have NBA back...We feel better about the first quarter than the fourth quarter."

Bewkes on Tuesday also reiterated no interest in big acquisitions that cost a lot of money and don't make strategic sense. He didn't discuss TW's recent bid for Endemol.

He also expressed confidence in CNN and its recent schedule rejig. Piers Morgan at 9 pm has "worked well," as have other new shows, Bewkes told the UBS conference. "It's a very profitable channel, and it has grown profits for the past seven years," he said. 

Asked about his view on cord cutting, whether it exists and what effect it has on premium TV networks like HBO, Bewkes said "pay TV is growing" and quite healthily. So, he is not seeing cord cutting, UBS banker Aryeh Bourkoff questioned him. "No," Bewkes confirmed.

Talking about sports and particularly the NBA, Bewkes said TW is always open to discussions, but it does not plan to lose money. "We don't rule out anything," he said, but emphasized that he was not hinting at anything that may be in the works.

Does syndicated content still work in the digital age where more programming is available online? Bewkes said yes. The value of syndicated hit shows "is going up," he said. Some investors have been concerned about this issue due to ratings weakness at TBS and TNT. Bewkes said that the networks didn't have enough programming and some worn-out shows, such as Without A Trace. "We're looking at it carefully" though keep an eye on possible future trends, Bewkes said. Ratings have already improved at the Turner networks, Bewkes said.

Asked about his four-year tenure as CEO, Bewkes quipped: "Feels longer."

Echoing CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moones, Bewkes also expressed confidence in continued overseas growth despite the current debt problems in Europe.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai