Turner Layoffs Arrive Amid Search for Strong TV Exec

Jeff Bewkes John Martin Split - H 2014
AP Images; Joseph Moran/Turner

Jeff Bewkes John Martin Split - H 2014

The question is whether Time Warner can attract the type of executive talent it wants to run channels including TBS, TNT and CNN

This story first appeared in the Sept. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

As Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes continues to revamp and streamline the media conglomerate, he has made it clear that means revolutionizing the company's Turner Broadcasting unit. Turner CEO John Martin is encouraging employees to take buyouts, while new leadership of the division's cable channels — which include TBS, TNT, CNN, Adult Swim and truTV — must improve performance, particularly as advertising dollars diminish and the cost of original programming, especially sports deals, keeps climbing.

The question, though, is whether Time Warner will be able to attract the type of executive talent that it wants to run some or all of those channels.

There is a clutch of seasoned TV executives who might be desirable for the gig, including Gail Berman (though she just struck a substantial deal with Fox), former NBC Universal Television Entertainment chairman Jeff Gaspin and recently departed Fox Broadcasting chief Kevin Reilly. These names and a few more have been floated around the industry, but what's not known are the parameters of the job. Turner could put together "a fantastic portfolio" of channels for an executive to oversee, says one high-level television veteran, but it's not clear that's the plan.

The far bigger issue is that the person who takes the job, as presently conceived, would report to David Levy, president of Turner. Before he got that title in August 2013, Levy was running sports and sales at the company. In that capacity, he put together an enviable set of sports-rights deals, including those with the NBA and MLB, that were part of the reason Rupert Murdoch was so keen to acquire Time Warner.

But to top TV executives, Levy is a sales guy — and sources say the strongest candidates with creative experience don't want to report to sales guys. Given that, says one executive with knowledge of the situation, "Can you get the person you need to turn two networks, possibly three networks, around?"

Bewkes, who has admitted to some Breaking Bad envy, wants programming that is younger and edgier, a departure for TNT, which pursued a large if somewhat older audience with shows like The Closer. TNT alone is on track to generate $2.9 billion in 2014, says SNL Kagan.

Analyst Tony Wible of Janney Capital Markets believes pressures in the business are such that Turner will have to streamline — it's offering "enhanced severance" to about 600 employees — and come up with more compelling shows. The pressure is not just about softening ad revenue and rising programming costs: Wible notes that Turner will have to renew its NBA deal in 2015, and he expects the cost could jump by as much as 90 percent.

To help in its quest for a programming chief, Turner has retained Sucherman Consulting Group. But a source with ties to Turner says using a headhunter means "hiring people based on résumés rather than an understanding of what goes on on the ground." Perhaps aware of that, Bewkes also is said to be looking for guidance from Kevin Tsujihara, CEO of sister company Warner Bros. The stakes are clear, says Wible: With the cable environment changing quickly, "no matter what scenario unfolds, you have to have good programming."