After 14 years as Turner Broadcasting, Tuner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin is leaving for what he describes as a dream job, to become CEO of NBA team Atlanta Hawks. A native Atlantan, Koonin has spent his career so far holding top positions at two blue-chip Atlanta-based companies, Coca-Cola and Turner, spending 14 years at each. He now plans to finish his career in his hometown with the post at Atlanta Hawks. The gig stemmed from conversations he recently had with the sports organization about coming in as an investor which grew into Koonin joining as CEO and Part-Owner. Koonin has had a 28-year association with the NBA, including his stint at TEN, whose network TNT carries the league’s games.
Koonin’s departure comes a month before TEN’s upfront presentation where he has been a staple. (Who can forget his memorable improv when the network’s video system temporarily shut down three years ago). In a memo, Turner Broadcasting Systems president David Levy said a search for Koonin’s replacement will start right away with both internal and external candidates expected to be considered. He indicated that the company would use the changeover at the top to bring in “fresh eyes” for evaluating TEN’s positioning in a rapidly changing media landscape. The process needs to be relatively quick so the networks have a leadership in place for the important upfront buying process when advertisers make the bulk of their commitments for the next year.
Koonin joined Turner in February 2000 as a head of TNT, eventually taking over the entire entertainment division, which also includes TBS, TruTV and TCM. He led both TNT and TBS into original scripted programming and spearheaded their rebrands with slogans “We Know Drama” (TNT) and “Very Funny” (TBS). He leaves the division in good shape. TNT traditionally has commanded the highest ad prices in basic cable and has produced a string of major hits in the past decade with The Closer, spinoff Major Crimes and Rizzoli & Isles, while TBS has been running high with off-network Big Bang Theory. TruTV is going through some rough times, with Koonin last year tapping MTV’s Chris Linn to lead a turnaround. Here is Koonin’s internal memo announcing the departure, in which he quotes Green Day’s Time Of Your Life, as well as the memo by Levy:
I set my guiding principle as a very young man that living in Atlanta, the home of my family and friends for multiple generations, was the key for lifetime happiness. For the past 28 years, I have been able to live and work in a senior leadership role in my hometown for two fantastic companies. I was very lucky to be a part of Coca-Cola’s incredible global growth in the 80’s and 90’s.
In February 2000, I walked into Turner Broadcasting after being invited to run TNT. I was 42 years old, had a full head of brown hair and dreams of taking the consumer lessons I learned from Coca-Cola and apply them to TV. I am truly gratified in saying that TNT, TBS, TCM and truTV have become familiar and beloved brands to TV viewers all over the USA.
Building strong brands and a continual focus on building a culture at TEN are just two of the major accomplishments that occurred on our collective watch. In addition to our brands and culture, we collectively accomplished a 10 year plus vision of becoming “broadcast replacement”. The dynamic combination of our relentless parity with broadcast messaging, hit original programming that won critical praise and record setting ratings, along with our best in class publicity and marketing has allowed us to plant our flag at the summit of this lofty goal. It is now an established fact that cable TV is every bit as good, if not better than, broadcast television.
It is no secret that I have a passionate love of sports, particularly for our local teams. In the past few months, I was invited to become an investor in the Atlanta Hawks. During our investor conversations, it became quickly apparent that the Hawks needed local leadership as well as a face and voice for the franchise. I have accepted the position of CEO and Part-Owner of the Atlanta Hawks. The job is consistent with my desire to make a difference in my community and finish my career in Atlanta.
I learned many lessons in my 14 years at Turner that I will take with me to my new position as CEO and an Owner of the Hawks. I look at this new opportunity as the chance to be a steward of another Ted Turner legacy. As a native Atlantan, I vividly remember being at one of the first Hawks games after they made the move from St. Louis. The Hawks came to life when Ted took over the team in the 70’s. Over time and under Ted’s leadership, the Hawks were the class of the Atlanta sports scene. I am hoping that we can reignite that spark and help the Hawks bring an NBA Championship to our hometown of Atlanta. I keep telling myself that I am not leaving Turner, but rather I have chosen a transfer to another division.
Now comes the hard part. I am very glad my iPad is waterproof. Absolutely none of my success would be possible without the amazing talents of the people that worked with me day in and day out for the past 5156 days. I have watched my direct report leadership teams grow into world class strategy, finance, PR, business affairs, on-air, marketing, programming, business operations, sponsorship, digital and brand-building executives of all four of our networks.
I have also been so incredibly lucky to watch you grow in your personal and professional lives. Every day, you display the values of integrity, community, family and company that make you so successful today and will continue to in the future. I have watched you recruit and grow the next generation of leadership and I am sure they will keep these wonderful networks growing and thriving for years to come.
One of my favorite songs is Green Day’s “Time of your Life”
Another turning point
A fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist
Directs you where to go
So make the best of this test
And don’t ask why
It’s not a question
But a lesson learned in time
It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right
I hope you had the time of your life
Here at Turner, I have certainly had the time of my life and I hope you have as well. I wish all of you lots of love and good wishes for the future. Please root for the Hawks, and rest assured that I will always be cheering for our networks and you.
David Levy, President of Turner Broadcast Systems:
By now you’ve heard Steve Koonin’s news that he is leaving Turner Broadcasting for an opportunity outside our company. I imagine your feelings on his decision are like mine: mixed. On one hand, I’ll miss Steve’s vision, creativity and leadership at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies. Their success is a direct result of his professional and personal investment. I know that many of you would use those same words to describe his influence on you and your work. There’s no better tribute than that.
On the other hand, I am pleased for Steve that his next challenge is so right for him now. Most of us are lucky to claim one dream job in a career. Steve is going to a third one (after Coca-Cola and Turner) that will leverage his passion, experience and hometown Atlanta roots in a very exciting way. So while it’s a big change, it’s a good one—for Steve and, ultimately, for the Turner businesses he has led
Change is happening across our company now. In the rapidly evolving media business environment, it’s imperative that we embrace and lead change in order to drive growth across our businesses. We have industry-leading profitable brands with potential for upside and results that will outpace our competitors. These changes reflect a larger plan to evolve Turner for next-generation success and profitability. We have an opportunity now to reinvigorate our core entertainment networks and brands at a pivotal time. We can look with fresh eyes at positioning and programming choices; at how we are engaging with audiences; and at how we want to develop and grow these important assets. This effort will bring new voices to the conversation and reveal things we can and should do differently. It’s an exciting prospect for us all to build the future success of our great brands.
At the same time, we have to ensure that these vital components of the larger Turner portfolio continue to run smoothly for our consumers, distributors, advertisers and business partners. I’ll work closely with the Turner Entertainment Networks leadership team to sustain our momentum through the critical Upfront season while engaging longer-term thinking on our entertainment networks and the qualities and fit required of the next executive leader of Turner Entertainment Networks. That process, including an internal and external search, begins immediately.
Turner’s entertainment networks are leaders, and the people at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies are some of the best in the industry. We have Steve to thank for that, and I have. I know you will share your thanks and best wishes with him. He’ll have a great next chapter, and so will we.