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Kellner: Forever Young And Soon Gone From WB

10/05/2003 08:00:00 PM Eastern

What Jamie Kellner brought to television is a salesman's sensibility in a programmer's world. The boyish architect of two start-up networks, who will officially retire from The WB at the end of this broadcast season, is, at 56, something of a legend.

"Jamie has always viewed TV through a prism of how do you make a commercial unit on TV more valuable than a commodity? How do you make a 60-second blank space of airwaves worth more than just gross ratings points?" says Garth Ancier, The WB's new co-chairman until Kellner officially departs and one of Fox's first top execs, along with Kellner and Barry Diller. "I think what Jamie did both at Fox and The WB is, with a laser-like intensity, focus these networks into a niche for young adults. If you can capture that audience, it's worth a premium to advertisers."

Kellner built Fox and The WB with a single-minded ambition to attract the younger viewer, an elusive demo that is usually out and about and rarely watching TV. Kellner, who started out in ad sales at CBS, knew that's who advertisers wanted. Typically, those young adults are making first-time life decisions—buying their first home, their first car, their first insurance—and establishing brand loyalty.

Of course, Kellner's theory has been proved correct. Both Fox and The WB have clear brands that occupy a specific place on television. Both networks know that their success begins with promoting an attitude that brings younger viewers to shows that are distinctly different.

Now Kellner is handing over the opportunity to approach the business in the same broad terms to Jordan Levin, who, at 36, will be the youngest broadcast-network CEO ever and who credits Kellner for reformulating the broadcast-television equation. Kellner, says Levin, understood how The WB "would be rewarded for offering an efficient delivery of a targeted audience as opposed to an inefficient delivery of a mass audience." Levin has been the architect of the network's programming decisions; now he adds oversight of all its operations.

"Jordan's become an excellent creative executive," Kellner says. "He has the capacity to do a lot of things quickly and efficiently, and he handles difficult situations well. In television, there are not a lot of people who are good at thinking about the programming, marketing, business and political aspects all at once. Jordan has the potential to cross the lines and be good at all the different things."

Helping Levin will be Ancier, 46, who becomes chairman and will handle strategic planning and other big-picture duties. Jed Petrick, also 46, remains president and chief operating officer, in charge of ad sales, distribution, broadcast standards, research, administration, human resources, Kids' WB! and The WB 100+ station group.

Putting the triumvirate in place doesn't really change much at The WB, the executives say, because the network has been run by much the same team since its inception in 1994 and launch in 1995—a "kitchen-cabinet approach," Levin calls it. (Ancier left briefly for NBC, where he worked with Scott Sassa, but that was a bad fit all around.)

"We have a bunch of people who have worked together for a long time, who are all competitive and who all like to win," says Petrick, who started working with Kellner in 1988 at Fox and then followed him to The WB. "It's a team that has a lot of complementary skills in our own areas of expertise. Our ability to have an open dialogue and to disagree without being disrespectful is really the reason we've succeeded. I don't think that changes."

Meanwhile, Kellner still has his Acme station group to run if he starts getting the TV-business itch. But what he doesn't think he'll be doing next is starting another network. "There's not enough spectrum to build another one," he says. "There can only be five profitable broadcast networks, and The WB is one of them."

After starting Fox in 1986 and then The WB in 1995, Kellner was tapped by top management of then-AOL Time Warner to run Turner Broadcasting System, a big job that included managing CNN, TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network at a time when the ad market was down and Fox News was coming on strong. He told reporters he liked the job; it didn't seem like it, though.

"I think Jamie is enjoying having the pressure off his shoulders," says Ancier, who served as Kellner's head of programming at Turner and came back to The WB right after Kellner did earlier this year. "Running Turner in particular is a huge operation with tremendous challenges and a lot of responsibility to make the business work."

"I get tired at the end of these projects," Kellner says. "I'm tired right now."

While Kellner already is enjoying a sort of semi-retirement, departing this week for a trip to Italy and playing a lot of golf, those who know him don't really expect him to be gone for long. "When Jamie sees the next challenge," Ancier says, "he's going to want to chase it."

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