With change rippling through WarnerMedia, symbolized by the twin exits of Turner president David Levy and HBO chief Richard Plepler, teams of senior executives are being advised to stay on task and not panic as the organization is restructured.
Sources tell Deadline these conversations today have not taken the form of large-scale town-hall meetings, but rather small, select gatherings of executives, particularly at TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network and TCM. The people delivering the message are not WarnerMedia corporate or AT&T leaders — who are busy finalizing the new org chart and an eagerly awaited announcement about the big-picture plan — but rather the remaining senior leaders inside the networks. “It’s not any kind of all-hands-on-deck thing, but the senior leadership just trying to keep everybody on track,” one Turner insider said. “A lot of people are just still trying to process what this will mean.”
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Another source said of Levy, “It’s what tends to happen when you get news like this about someone who is woven into the fabric of the company like he has been. The people who are still here are trying to communicate that we have a job to do and a lot to focus on. That’s what he would urge us to do.” Preparations for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and ongoing work on Turner’s upfront ad sales are among the major March priorities. The source noted that Levy came to the office as usual on Friday. No official end date has been specified for his nearly 33-year run at the company.
Some major chess pieces have already been moved around the board at Turner. In January, former TNT and TBS chief Kevin Reilly was named the head of WarnerMedia’s forthcoming streaming service. Sarah Aubrey, who had been Reilly’s lieutenant, moved over to a similar role on the streaming side and Brett Weitz was upped to GM of TNT and TBS.
AT&T closed its $81 billion acquisition of Time Warner last June, but only three days ago escaped from the government’s legal challenges of the deal thanks to a unanimous ruling by a panel of three federal appeals court judges. Amid reports that former NBCUniversal chairman Bob Greenblatt is in talks to assume a senior role overseeing the new WarnerMedia streaming service, reporting to AT&T’s media chief John Stankey, Plepler and Levy were suddenly revealed to be in a precarious position.
Wall Street often rewards corporate layoffs, but the exits of two seasoned execs at AT&T didn’t seem to reassure many investors. The company’s stock price at mid-day was down 1% to $30.78. On the day of the merger’s closing, last June 12, it closed at $34.35.
The executive reshuffling is happening as thousands of New York-based WarnerMedia workers are in the process of moving into a new corporate headquarters building in Hudson Yards, a newly developed neighborhood along the Hudson River. The move over the next several weeks, will unite previously separate divisions in a single building, with HBO’s longtime home base on Sixth Avenue near Bryant Park being vacated. Turner and CNN will leave Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.
AT&T CFO John Stephenson, speaking earlier this week at a Morgan Stanley investor conference, said real estate is one area the company is looking at in terms of cost savings. Management is “actively working on an extensive real estate portfolio — administrative buildings, headquarters buildings, land, as well as looking at our entire $500 billion total asset balance sheet,” Stephens said. “If you think about it from a capability perspective, if you can find 2% of those assets to sell, that’s $10 billion. So, this is infinitely doable.”
In that same interview, Stephens offered reassurances about WarnerMedia joining the AT&T fold. “We wanted to protect the culture,” he said. “A finance bean-counter from a telephone company doesn’t want to go in and spoil what is a tremendously good asset.”
Barely 24 hours later, Plepler and Levy had made it known they were leaving the company after a combined tenure of about 60 years.
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