As the top executive of Turner Broadcasting, Phil Kent is leading the programming giant into a complicated future. With dozens of cable networks, a host of Websites and more than 9,000 employees worldwide under his purview, Kent says his goal is to make Turner a top player in every category, including television, online and future businesses. “Our strategy has been to evolve from singular linear networks to multimedia companies built upon our brands,” he explains.
Kent, Turner's CEO since February 2003, can boast success across the Turner family. He has led a revival of the company's domestic entertainment networks, including top cable nets TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network, with sharpened branding, forays into original programming and major sports deals. He spearheaded the integration of Court TV into the cable group. At the same time, Turner has been aggressively launching new digital products, such as CNN's user-contributed content program I-Report. Turner's international business is booming, including launches of new networks and Websites.
Turner's biggest businesses, of course, are its domestic cable networks. To achieve success there, Kent says, networks like Cartoon and TNT must play to three constituencies: viewers, advertisers and distributors. Satisfying all three requires deftness, Kent says. “Certain things work for each audience,” he points out. “It is a balancing act.”
Kent is well-positioned to achieve that delicate balance. During three decades in the entertainment business, he has earned a reputation as a skillful negotiator.
“Phil understands how to take any kind of business and make it lean and make it profitable,” says Dawn Ostroff, president of The CW network, who first met Kent when he was beginning his career. “Phil is excellent at putting a great team together and letting them do what they do best.”
After graduating from Lehigh University, where he wrote his senior thesis on financing children's television, Kent spurned job offers in finance for a low-paying sales assistant job at media rep Blair Television. When the company entered syndication, he helped sell reruns of The Cisco Kid and game shows.
Kent's career really began in 1987, when he joined Creative Artists Agency's television group and worked extensively on cable packaging. At the time, he recalls, a job in cable wasn't considered as glamorous as one working primetime deals for a broadcast network, but Kent relished the fast-paced and creative deal-making.
One memorable pact, he says, was selling Tales of the Crypt to HBO. The deal had complicated financing and also introduced him to industry powers like former HBO chief Chris Albrecht and producer Joel Silver, a principal on the series. “It was a very interesting series with the most expensive puppet ever made,” Kent says.
With such deals, Kent became an early advocate for cable. “People thought, 'Why would you want to be in cable?'” Ostroff recalls. “But Phil was one of the few who said cable was a [viable] new business. He was at the forefront.”
As an agent, Kent says, he learned skills that serve him well as a CEO: bringing together players and managing people. “I learned what drives people and how to turn their ambitions into reality,” he says. But after six successful years with the agency, he yearned to be more involved with a company. “I wanted to drive the agenda of an enterprise,” Kent says.
While he mulled his future, Kent left CAA and took a year to travel around the world. He reentered the industry when Silver asked him to consult on TV projects. Several months later, in 1993, former Turner entertainment chief Scott Sassa recruited Kent to Atlanta to run Turner's home entertainment division. Kent relished learning the division's fast-paced businesses, including retail and merchandising and licensing.
“You could have an idea in the middle of the night and cut a deal a few days later,” Kent says. For example, Turner created a million-dollar business selling Tom & Jerry-branded cat litter in Asia. “I enjoyed the creativity,” Kent says.
He went on to run Turner's international division and, from August 2000 to August 2001, headed CNN as president and COO. After the merger with AOL, Kent resigned that post and took another year to travel.
He returned to Turner two years later, taking over the CEO post from Jamie Kellner. As Turner's top executive, Kent was charged with all of the company's domestic and international operations. His boss, Time Warner COO Jeff Bewkes, says he was well-suited for the position.
“Phil has played a critical leadership role within many of Turner's business units at their respective defining moments,” Bewkes says. For example, he says, under Kent's direction, both the home entertainment and international divisions achieved considerable growth. Now, as head of all of Turner's cable operations, Kent is positioning the company for the future, Bewkes says: “Turner is building branded media environments, so consumers can access content on their own terms.”
Among his accomplishments as CEO, Kent says securing top-flight sports for TNT and TBS has been critical. TNT offers Nascar and top NBA action, including playoffs and the All-Star Game, while TBS now hosts Major League Baseball playoffs. Such events, he says, are an example of how cable networks offer value to their viewers, advertisers and distributors. Marquee sports, Kent says, attract big ratings and appeal to advertisers. With operators—who often bristle at paying increased rates for cable networks that take on big sports contracts—Kent offers this positive spin: “Sports help justify our value proposition to distributors. This is must-have programming for our distributors.”
Another push under Kent's watch has been a revival of original scripted series. He says originals like the TBS comedy My Boys and TNT's hits The Closer and Saving Grace help differentiate the networks from the competition. For example, TNT's shows “give us a real identity beyond the Law and Order rerun network,” Kent says. “We have a good track record and credibility in the creative community now.”
Kent says his networks must continue to reinvent on-air and also need to innovate on new platforms. It is challenging to build digital businesses, such as Websites and on-demand, without undermining the TV networks. “We need to build value on all platforms,” he says. But whatever Turner does, Kent adds, “We always want to be true to our brands.”