Power 100 2015

Sizing up the movers, shakers, constructors and disruptors who make the TV industry turn

Even as we type the words “power List,” we understand that such lists have become something of an end-of-year staple, as much a part of the late-December festivities as noisemakers, champagne and Pitbull.

Given the ever-shifting nature of the television industry, one might suggest that attempting to order its true power players from 1 to 100 is too daunting.

But that one phrase—ever-shifting—makes the attempt worth all the effort. Through a mix of technological evolution, grudging acceptance of change, miraculous and overdue audience metrics, new threats from disruptive over-the-top players and a spectrum auction that will upend everything all over again, the industry in 2015 (and continuing to 2016) has become harder to read than Finnegans Wake. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more extraordinary landscape revamp in a major medium that has long thrived, and will continue to thrive in remade ways once thought impossible outside of, say, Star Trek (when it aired on linear television). To take a snapshot of the developers and disruptors, programmers and providers, and regulators and dealmakers who push the industry forward is to view—and chronicle—a moment of electricity and insight in a world where the foundational blueprint is in near-constant rewrite.

This is, indeed, a snapshot, the kind of selfie Ellen DeGeneres (who made our list) might have taken at a precise moment in time at the end of 2015.

That also invites explanation and caveats. How is power measured in an apples-and-oranges world of C-level execs, talent (and their agents) and government officials? The criteria for our choices and their order began with some obvious measures.

CEOs and controllers of giant industry companies, presidents, department heads, once considered and investigated for levels of influence, were bound to rate high. Financials—market cap, deal valuation and so on—mattered to us, but weren’t all-defining. We’re in the midst of several mergers and deals at the moment, but a deal ain’t done until it’s done. Nods were given to moves that appeared to succeed (and those that are still waiting to be judged) throughout late 2015.

Some might claim there should be a whole lot more diversity on this list, and that should have been a huge factor in our measure. In fact it was, and the lack of diversity here frankly frustrates us.

Another major factor was considered—how much of a disruptor has a person been? Disruptors get a lot of press, but why do they deserve slots on this list? Because they are the Roone Arledges and Ted Turners of the modern age.

All of which leaves us guaranteeing you one thing with the B&C/Multichannel News Power 100 list—you will disagree with it. There’s going to be head-scratching, shouting and queries about our sanity.

We welcome your perspectives.

1.Brian Roberts
Chairman and CEO, Comcast Corp.

It’s not easy being on top, but Brian Roberts often makes it look like it is. He’s good at understanding that if you’re running the country’s top broadband provider and one of its top multichannel video programming distributors (22.3 million video subs, 22.5 million for Internet), you’re going to wear the requisite industry bull’s-eye. Roberts’ plan to merge with No. 2 pay-TV provider Time Warner Cable went bust (Charter’s TWC bid remains under review). Comcast lost video subs, but added Web ones. There are some cries of competitive bullying, and like all its rivals, Comcast faces concerns of keeping up with technology, generational shifts and cord-cutting.

But Roberts combats the negative by embracing the necessity of innovation. The company is building a new Silicon Valley tech center and now employs 1,500 software engineers. One-quarter of its customers are already enjoying the convenience of its X1 operating system (with voice remote). Its new $15/month Stream TV offers a small, enticing bundle. It plans to harness viewing data from set-top boxes and streaming apps. Recent investments in Buzzfeed and Vox help with youth appeal. The company even invested $300 million to improve its notoriously spotty customer service record. In 2015, Roberts continued to set the tone for the industry’s movement toward the future.

2. Bob Iger
Chairman and CEO, Walt Disney Co.

It is, for the most part, a world of laughter for Bob Iger. Operating (understandably) like a man with lots of wild cards in his deck, Iger’s portfolio of acquired megabrands—mainly Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm—continue to pay off in myriad realms. Disney enjoyed its fifth-straight year of record performance (with revenue hitting $52.5 billion), and any “Force Awakens” metaphor seems appropriate.

But, like Brian Roberts and most others on this list, Iger must grapple with how best to gain an upper hand in the continued battle for traditional television relevance. There is understandable concern over ESPN’s layoffs, but the net remains a live event sports leader. Maker Studios, a multichannel network bought in 2014, hasn’t yet borne abundant fruit. Iger, meanwhile, has posted better future-minded moves than many, especially in the realm of developing VOD options for company content. Disney, a co-owner of Hulu, announced the launch, in Europe, of DisneyLife, an over-the-top service with content from Disney staples ESPN, ABC and Disney Channel. The company has also kept its options open with Netflix. Iger’s flexibility continues to serve him and the company well and should keep Disney from edging any closer to a world of tears.

3. Susan Wojcicki
CEO, YouTube

Piano-playing cats. Highly charged political videos. A visual resource for whatever you seem to be looking for at any time. A Swedish comedian and gamer who goes by the name PewDiePie, with 40 million subscribers and 10 billion video views. These are the weirdly expansive corners of You-Tube, which is its own vast content universe that the current and coming Most Powerful Demos are watching daily, and faithfully. Plus, the company partners with TV networks on the dial, providing digital rocket fuel to their shows. Does all of that make Susan Wojcicki the ultimate disruptor?

Yes, because Wojcicki has been good at recognizing the power of her site’s homegrown stars as she continues a career-long pattern of innovation. Under her watch, the 10-yearsyoung YouTube went to full-screen vertical playback in July, the YouTube Gaming app allows users to view a favorite category on devices and YouTube Red is a subscription-based stop with a plan for ever-more enticing homegrown content (and, rumor has it, perhaps TV programs and theatricals down the road). Has Wojcicki figured out the right ways to monetize her behemoth, which, like Netflix, seems more than a little coy on reporting numbers? What about turning the ultimate video warehouse into a better spot for targeted, promoted, ad-supported fare? We see that developing apace from an exec who’s best at giving the kids what they want.

4. Leslie Moonves
President and CEO, CBS Corp.

There are those who would suggest Les Moonves could sit comfortably atop any TV industry power list, and given his world-on-a-string success at CBS, that’s hard to debate. His concerns are sound, with network hits (The Big Bang Theory, NCIS and this season’s Supergirl) and great ad numbers, including the strongest scatter the company has seen in a long time.

Moonves is also the prime mover in getting everybody to wake up to seven-day measurement. And Showtime and The CW are growing pride (and ratings) points. Moonves’ greatest strength may be his flexibility. He’ll work with Netflix when the numbers suggest the right return, and while he still maintains the cord-cutter revolution is overblown, it’s an understandable perspective when you’re running the success machine that is CBS. (That machine makes the network a necessity on bundles big and skinny—another plus.) That said, CBS All Access has gained significant subscriber growth, and Moonves is looking at the next iteration of Star Trek—which will live on it. That should give All Access an even bigger jump, while adding yet more clout to CBS’ own content—perhaps Moonves’ most prized asset.

5. Jeff Bewkes
CEO, Time Warner

Every exec with their hands on the corporate keys agrees good content is one’s most valued asset; they don’t all agree on how best to protect and monetize it, as Jeff Bewkes made clear in his Q3 earnings call. Noting the frustration that comes with losing pay-TV subs and ads—a pinch everybody is feeling—Bewkes’ reaction is to consider delaying the subscription video-on-demand window of his company’s content to the big OTT players, signaling a lack of desire to share those assets’ profits with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

That may make Bewkes and TW something of an island among top players, but Bewkes is unconcerned (constant merger bids notwithstanding). He has a strategy. Time Warner may invest in Hulu, which could further combat the OTT giants. The company is experimenting with decreasing ad loads (also an iconoclastic move), first on TruTV. The company is embracing its apps and website destinations (HBO Go, HBO Now, Turner’s iStreamPlanet, TBS’ Super Deluxe). Numbers are good at HBO and Turner Sports, and The Flash, Gotham and Arrow are valued comic book properties in a Marvel-dominated world. Is Bewkes a different kind of disruptor, a guy who turned down Rupert Murdoch’s Time Warner bid last year, and saw stock prices rise 17%? The facts will, in time, speak for themselves.

6. Rupert Murdoch
Co-Executive Chairman, 21st Century Fox

It was a time of some transition at 21st Century Fox in 2015, as James Murdoch was named CEO and his brother Lachlan executive chairman. But there’s no confusion about the straw that still very much stirs the drink at a company whose biggest broadcast TV asset remains, fittingly enough, Empire. At 84, Rupert Murdoch continues to be a divisive, political, vastly successful figure in the media landscape, known these days for very public pronouncements, fascinating tweets and backroom dealings.

Overall revenue took a Q3 tumble at Fox, but the cherished cable network group (including stalwart Fox News Channel) was up, thanks to affiliate fees and ad revenue. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has had his issues with Fox News, leaving the net to weep copiously all the way to the bank. Fox bought a controlling interest in National Geographic, and succeeding layoff moves smacked many as draconian (though Fox would perhaps quote a Corleone family credo about “business”). Following a typical company pattern, FS 1 is set to show a profit on its way to challenge ESPN. James Murdoch was quoted this year as saying, “We have to be disruptors if we’re going to grow.” He knows whom to take after.

7. John Malone
Chairman, Liberty Media, Liberty Global and Liberty Interactive

If cable deals and consolidation were raised to a kind of mythic status (and some perhaps believe it already is), John Malone would be the form’s Zen master. Often, there is a pattern—a smaller monetary gesture before a much larger move, or a swooping in where others have failed. Comcast earlier this year saw its tie-up with Time Warner Cable come undone. Now, it’s Charter Communications’ turn at Time Warner Cable along with Bright House Networks, an attempt engineered by Malone.

There are plenty of reasons to assume Malone will be busy in 2016. A recently announced restructuring plan would see his Liberty Interactive (including QVC Group and cable assets) reclassify under different stock plans. The new Liberty Media Group would then cover ownership stakes in Time Warner, Viacom and Live Nation; a separate group would concern stakes in Sirius XM. Malone, who also controls the reins at Starz and is majority shareholder at Discovery, just announced that Liberty Global and Discovery bought into Lionsgate Entertainment in a bigger way. Where will this all lead? Hard to say, except that Malone has always been a mogul with precise, (often) profitable plans—and power.

8. Tom Wheeler
Chairman, Federal Communications Commission

Forget the ides of March. In the TV industry come 2016, the real sense of foreboding comes exactly two weeks later, on March 29, which is when Tom Wheeler has scheduled the vaunted 600 MHz wireless spectrum auction. Is it hyperbole to call this—now three months shy of the date—the most important event on the industry calendar? No, it’s actually understatement, and it’s all Wheeler, with the FCC chairman’s actions set to remake the figurative TV signal and wireless maps. If all goes according to plan, a great coming together of broadcasters offering spectrum and wireless carriers with an aim to buy will make disruptor history.

Wheeler’s overall commission aim is to increase competition, keep the net neutral (meaning on slow and fast lanes, via Title II) and also maintain a tight hold on media ownership rules and reclassification of Internet service providers. Many questions remain in terms of auction procedure, involving low-power TV stations and translators, room for unlicensed device use, whether lawsuits will delay the action, reconfiguration of the broadcast band and the need for moving stations and new equipment (and the budget, in terms of time and money, for both). Pulling it all off will be no mean feat, but success or failure will build Wheeler’s—and this era’s—legacy.

9. Richard Plepler
Chairman and CEO, HBO

If Emmys are power (and, of course, they are), then Richard Plepler has had a fortifying year, with HBO winning an astonishing 43 awards from 126 nominations. That speaks to the kind of content jewels—Game of Thrones, Veep, The Jinx—of which continually outsized expectations are made (and to the contributions of programming president Michael Lombardo). Add Sesame Street and a great tie with Vice and HBO is succeeding at the demo dance.

But Plepler—a clever strategist and consummate politician—and the outfit he runs are at a fascinating place on the industry-wide precipice. Broadcasters going over-the-top is one thing; premium networks, with their own kind of profit model, are another. HBO Now, launched in April for $15 per month and available without a subscription, gives all the net’s considerable, acclaimed content to the user. The implied risk, of course, is that HBO will sacrifice subs and frustrate the MVPDs that pay handsomely for HBO content. Already, Plepler is at odds with Comcast, which is not offering HBO Now with its slew of broadband products—unlike Apple and Google, and Cablevision and Verizon. Like any powerful executive looking for the right route to continued affluence, Plepler wants his slice of the considerable subscription TV pie—with perhaps a chance to knock Netflix down a peg.

10. Reed Hastings
Cofounder and CEO, Netflix

Analysts and competitors get understandably frustrated at Hastings for a lack of quantifiable numbers regarding Netflix. So we found this one—“Usage increased 200% year-over-year from 2014-15.” Wait, sorry—that wasn’t about Netflix, per se. That was the jump (according to lexicographers) in use of the word “binge-watch,” named last month by Collins English Dictionary as “the word of 2015.”

You can blame (or credit) Hastings for such ubiquity, as the CEO of the most renowned streaming service keeps the video-on-demand flames burning. The reason is the elegance of the interface and the well of content people want to see. In 2016, the company will spend $5 billion on content (up from $2 billion in 2013)—only ESPN spends more. Standard-bearers like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black are now flanked by feature films, comedy specials, documentaries, kids fare and lucrative off-net shows (Friends was a key 2015 pickup) licensed from all over. The continuing question at this most vexing moment in the content evolution is whether or not broadcasters, lured in by short-term gains and frustrated by fewer ads and lower ratings, went too far by selling to the Netflixes and Amazons of the world, strengthening the assumption that watching TV ads doesn’t matter.

And Hastings? He maintains that he always saw the future—Netflix as ultimate disruptor, with the Web replacing TV and apps replacing channels. The game isn’t over yet, but Hastings, like his service, gets watched continuously.