Six months after the departure of Steve Koonin, longtime President of Turner Entertainment Networks, and a month and a half after the exit of TNT and TBS President of Programming Michael Wright, Turner Broadcasting does not appear close to filling the high profile double vacancy. After a slew of exploratory meetings over the summer, two leading candidates emerged — former Fox chairman Kevin Reilly and Sony Pictures TV’s president of U.S. programming and production Zack Van Amburg — who I hear both received offers for the job.
Reilly had been identified as a top choice the moment he announced his exit from Fox in May, embarking on months of on-again, off-again discussions with the Turner leadership. Van Amburg was a more recent development. Earlier this fall Turner went after the Sony executive who had just reupped his contract at the studio. That proved an insurmountable obstacle, and I hear conversations ended about two weeks ago. There was one more round of negotiations with Reilly last week but that dialogue also hit a dead end.
With Reilly and Van Amburg out of the picture, I hear the executive search is back at square one, with Turner toppers again identifying and meeting potential candidates. Additionally, there has been chatter about potential sidebar conversations with Reilly after the official end of negotiations, something that had happened before. So, while that chapter appears over, the book on Reilly may not be completely closed.
A sticking point for many high-profile executives who had met for the job has been Turner’s reporting structure, with the person who is hired having to report to David Levy. Levy, the longtime head of Turner Ad Sales and Sports, was promoted to president of the company in summer 2013, with Koonin having to report to him. Koonin left months later. Levy has been a key asset for Time Warner as he negotiates TNT and TBS’ big sports packages. He just wrapped another one, renewing Turner’s NBA deal.
Levy’s ascent to programming oversight was a fallout from the seismic leadership shift at Turner Broadcasting triggered by the departure of longtime Chief Executive Phil Kent, who was succeeded by CFO John K. Martin. While I hear that Levy does not get very involved in programming matters, giving autonomy to TNT and TBS’ development teams, the hierarchy has proven an issue for many top-level candidates who would have to report to an executive with no programming background.
Meanwhile, Turner Broadcasting’s flagship networks, TNT and TBS, continue without a programming leader as Martin and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes have stressed to Wall Street the importance of original content to the success of the two nets. Drama projects that had been identified by Wright’s team have been picked up to pilot after his departure, but networks of that caliber face major programming decisions on an almost daily basis. Pickup decisions at TNT and TBS are taking awhile these days, including a pending renewal of top TNT drama Rizzoli & Isles. That gives the protracted executive search urgency.
Making things even more challenging for TNT and TBS are Time Warner’s recently imposed layoffs, which call for Turner Broadcasting to cut 10% of its workforce, eliminating 1,475 jobs. The massive headcount reduction has affected such areas as marketing, PR, research, strategy and other divisions that support the networks’ programming.