Turner CEO Says Donald Trump "Really Cares About What CNN Is Saying," Talks AT&T-Time Warner Deal

Becca Farsace
John Martin

John Martin says that a Trump White House is "probably a little bit better from a business standpoint" and that there are "too many shitty" cable networks that must go away.

Donald Trump may have been criticizing CNN, but John Martin, chairman and CEO of Time Warner's Turner unit that it is part of, said Wednesday evening in New York that he is not worried that the president-elect would negatively affect the news network's business.

Appearing at Recode's Evening With Code Media event in midtown Manhattan, the exec reacted to a tweet this week from Trump that said: "I thought that @CNN would get better after they failed so badly in their support of Hillary Clinton however, since election, they are worse!"

"Please, failing?!" Martin said when asked about the comment, adding that he felt CNN generally did a good job covering the campaign and gave "pretty much equal time" to both candidates and let people decide. "I couldn't be more proud about how we covered the election," he concluded.

Trump probably watches more CNN than any other news organization, Martin also said about the president-elect, given his complaints. "I think he really cares about what CNN is saying," the Turner boss offered.

Financials also are looking strong. "CNN is completing its hall of fame year" with a record profit of around $1 billion, Martin emphasized. And he said next year could be even a better financial year for CNN given lower costs compared to the election year, higher affiliate-fee revenue and more originals despite lower advertising revenue.

"A general fascination" with Trump could also help ratings in 2017, the Turner boss suggested. Overall, Trump is "probably a little bit better from a business standpoint," said Martin.

But he said Trump's election win likely doesn’t mean too much for CNN and how it does things. And the exec took a shot at other news networks. “We have a huge journalistic mission," Martin said. "We’re not Fox News, which is cheering, or MSNBC, which is laying on the floor.” CNN wants to be "holding everyone's feet to the fire," he added.

Martin also lauded CNN head Jeff Zucker, who he said has “done a phenomenal job," for running an editorial review meeting every morning that includes spirited debates about coverage focus areas and tone. "We're going to constantly evaluate," Martin said.

Martin shared that his sister told him that Fox News was more balanced than CNN, and "I thought my head was going to explode," he said. 

Telecom giant AT&T's planned $85.4 billion acquisition of Time Warner also was a key topic of debate. Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara had assured investors Tuesday that the Time Warner studio would retain the autonomy it needs after the AT&T deal closes and that he'd "protect the culture" of the film unit. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson has emphasized that Warners should be staffed by entertainment executives rather than by telecom experts, because "you need the special sauce to create the great movies," Tsujihara added.

Martin said Wednesday the sale could help Time Warner better understand consumers and "super-charge our ability" to transform into more of a technology company.

The Turner CEO told the event that he had lunch with Stephenson the day after the deal announcement, adding that "I had a really good feeling" as the AT&T boss respects the culture of Time Warner. Martin said the feeling was much different than when a mega-merger of the past was unveiled. "I knew on day two of the AOL-Time Warner merger that it was going to be a shit show," he recalled.

Asked if AT&T could keep HBO only to itself, Martin said: "That's a moronic thought, because it would ruin the value of HBO." But he said "there may be" exclusive forms of content for AT&T subscribers in the future.

Martin in his appearance also suggested that in the future Time Warner networks may not want to license shows to Netflix a year after they debut, but could instead offer them in their own SVOD-type environment.

Asked about the rising number of digital and virtual pay TV operators, such as Sling, Sony Vue, DirecTV Now and planned services from Hulu, Google and Amazon, Martin said they will help weed out weak cable networks that get carried by traditional pay TV firms despite soft ratings. "There are too many shitty networks in the United States that have to go away," he said.

But none of Turner's fall into that category? "No," Martin said. "I feel really good. I'll put up our networks against anybody."

Wednesday evening's event also featured Politico co-founder Jim VandeHei, who discussed his new start-up Axios that he said will offer short and shareable news summaries and more with hopes that he can start selling subscriptions down the line that could cost $10,000, and Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed U.K.