Peter Bart: Will Time Warner’s Creative Energy Survive AT&T Takeover?

Time Warner

Time Warner, the empire that was once poised to conquer both Hollywood and the web, is about to fade into a mere corporate subsidiary, reminding industry players yet again that the ground is shifting under them. Jeffrey Bewkes could walk away with a $95 million exit visa when TW is absorbed into the amorphous corporate blob known as AT&T, as his acolytes at HBO, CNN, Warner Bros and Turner wait nervously to discover what lies in store for them. The bottom-line question: AT&T, a low-growth company, sees TW as a potential growth engine, but will it invest the big bucks needed for TW to compete in the Netflix/Amazon universe?

Industry leaders realize that the $85.4 billion AT&T deal could foreshadow a chain reaction of corporate convulsions. Indeed, media veterans think back fondly on the era when autonomous entities called “networks” and ”studios” provided the content — only a generation has passed since they were devoured by corporate nation-states like Sony and Viacom, supposedly ensuring limitless resources and synergies. But now, of course, many of these leviathans themselves are undergoing identity crises. Cash-hungry Viacom is being re-invented, Sony is being re-structured by Tony Vinciquerra, Fox is being re-defined amidst a generational transition, with all of these maneuverings taking place in the ominous shadow of Apple, Google and the other giants of the Next Era.

Given all this, the AT&T-TW consolidation may play out as a sort of trailer for future mega-deals. An AT&T functionary named John Stankey, who no one in Hollywood has ever heard of (but is soon moving to L.A.) assumed leadership this week of the remnants of Bewkes’ empire (he previously ran Telecom Operations for AT&T, whatever they are). Stankey’s tenure, to be sure, is technically dependent on whether the chaotic Trump administration approves the deal, which in turn may be affected by what form of torture Donald Trump chooses to inflict on his arch nemesis, CNN. Would Trump try to vote CNN off the AT&T island, consigning it to the potential darkness of Murdochland?

John Stankey Jeff Bewkes
John Stankey left, and Jeff Bewkes REX/Shutterstock

Bewkes’ imminent departure itself marks the end of an era. At 65, the very savvy, diplomatic Bewkes was the ultimate corporate protector, as well as self-protector. Having survived the bizarre machinations of Gerald Levin, who orchestrated the acquisition of TW by AOL (AOL was the smaller company at the time), Bewkes successfully installed a fiscal discipline and sang the virtues of shareholder value. Bewkes liked to boast that a $1,000 investment in TW in 2008, when he became CEO, would be worth $4,400 today; to be sure, a similar investment in Amazon would yield $83,000. Now AT&T, a $240 billion enterprise, has essentially invested a third of its value ($85.4 billion) to acquire a company that may contribute only 16% of its revenue. That’s a big gamble on the theory that TW’s earnings can exponentially grow and that synergies may also burgeon between content creation and AT&T assets like DirecTV, developing technology and phones. According to insiders, neither Stankey nor Randall Stephenson, the AT&T uberboss, has shown up at TW offices to meet and greet. Or to explain initiatives.

In 2014, Bewkes successfully fought off the ferocious campaign of Rupert Murdoch to annex Time Warner. While other CEOs like Michael Lynton and Philippe Dauman seemed to be under constant fire from the media, the wily Bewkes granted few media interviews, salting his cautious pronouncements with dry humor. When TW’s stake in the magazine business showed dire signs of trouble, he quietly spun off Time Inc in a manner that would protect the parent company but, many argued, intensified problems for the print entity. Though TW’s origins were in print, Bewkes himself was not “a print man,” having climbed to the top at fast-growing HBO before becoming overall CEO.

AOL Time Warner

Critics charged that Bewkes’ conservative, self-protective instincts were reflected in his key appointments within the company, favoring “safe” committee structures rather than bringing in high-profile outsiders. The “committee” structure at HBO was quietly abolished with the promotion of Richard Plepler. With the forced departure of Alan Horn, the committee running Warner Bros proved equally clumsy, triggering a serious slump in the studios performance from which it is only now recovering. At CNN, of course, Bewkes turned outside to recruit the tempestuous Jeff Zucker over internal candidates and has supported him rigorously.

The big question confronting TW’s executives: How will AT&T manage its imposing new range of assets? Can it sustain its history of innovation and does it even understand that history? Time Magazine was the nation’s first weekly news magazine, CNN the first 24-hour news network, Warner Bros the feistiest, free-wheeling movie studio, HBO the first premium cable network, its legacy ranging from The Sopranos to Game Of Thrones. Will AT&T become a nurturing steward of that creative legacy?

TW shareholders have a lot riding on the answer, but so does our popular culture.

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