At Turner, Breland Knows Distribution

Building relationships key for network sales COO as technology changes business
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Once Coleman Breland decided he wanted to work for Turner Broadcasting, he applied for every job opening he could find at the company. In the process, he collected 11 rejection letters. Eventually, he got his foot in the door, doing a job no one wanted.

Now, 15 years later, Breland is chief operating officer of Turner Network Sales, in charge of distribution, an area that has been transformed by technology from pushing to get linear channels on cable systems to figuring out how to work with distributors to get Turner’s content in the hands of consumers when they want it and where they want it, while spearheading the company’s TV Everywhere initiative.

“Now, the most interesting part of my job is looking at the Gordian knot” created by new technologies and new devices,” he says. That impacts content owners and distributors. “It’s a great time, because the consumers have more of a voice in how content is experienced than ever before.”

Breland’s boss, 24-year Turner veteran David Levy, president of ad sales, distribution and sports, didn’t know how many times the company turned Breland down. “My joke is that if I applied to Turner today, I don’t think I could get in,” Levy says. But, after 15 years at the company, “knowledge is power, and Coleman certainly has a lot of knowledge, not just on the distribution business, but all of the new media business,” and provides key insight into possible incremental revenue and how distributors will react when negotiating new rights deals and renewals, Levy adds.

Breland grew up in Murphy, N.C., a small town where his father, a dentist, was sometimes paid in crops or shotguns. He remembers watching Saturday-morning TV as a kid, but his family didn’t get cable for a while because his dad felt his kids needed to study more. (When he got his job at Turner, Breland called his dad to say, “Guess where I’m working?”)

After getting a master’s in journalism, radio and television from the University of Georgia, Breland’s first job was writing for the Dean Rusk Center for International Law. Then he worked for Southern Satellite Systems, selling time on the vertical blanking interval on TBS, which was used to transmit data at the thenspeedy rate of 2400 baud.

After two years at an ad agency, Breland joined Anderson Consulting, where he received more formal business training. “It was the Marine Corps of business,” he recalls.

At that point, Breland wanted to get back into cable television and wanted to work for Turner, because he was drawn to the atmosphere of “wonderful creative chaos under control” instilled by founder Ted Turner. Working in the TV business is still exciting. Breland recalls having a recent conversation with a colleague about how lucky they are: “We could be working for a bank right now.”

Breland’s first job at Turner was on the home satellite marketing team, just as DirecTV was launching. “I knew [Dish Network founder] Charlie Ergen when he was in the C-band business,” he says. “I caught the DBS rocket.”

As the industry consolidated, distribution became a very simple business, but technology has changed that. “Now there are additional layers. The conversations are just widely dimensional,” Breland says. To help Turner staffers understand the technology consumers are using, Breland has had a Tech Lab installed where they can use all of the newest devices that can access content and understand their digital navigation systems.

And instead of looking for leverage to gouge distribution partners, Breland says he looks at how the fortunes of content creators and distributors are intertwined. “Let’s be good to the people that pay the bills,” he says. “It’s not about linear networks. It’s about how do you take a brand, have it permeate and become valuable across devices and across multiple demographics.”

“We’re much more of a partnership-building relationship than us-and-them,” says Levy. But Breland also has to keep rate increases coming. “We always seem to get our fair value,” Levy says.

“I think Coleman does an excellent job of representing Turner,” says Derek Chang, executive VP for content strategy and development at DirecTV. “Turner’s been on the forefront of pushing the concept of authentication, at least from a programmers’ standpoint. And Coleman’s clearly been instrumental in that.”

Breland is a tough negotiator, “but what always makes me give in to him is that he told me that growing up, he learned how to shoot a gun before he learned how to ride a bicycle. I don’t want to have nightmares of Coleman coming after me,” Chang says.

At home, Breland lives with his wife and two children. His daughter certainly seems to have inherited the negotiation gene. He recalls coming home, thinking he had left the bargaining table, when 8-year-old Carly presented him with a written proposal about why her parents should buy her a Breyer model horse on eBay. The proposal was complete with bullet points on what she’d be willing to do, hand-drawn arrows indicating items that made it a particularly “good deal” and even a space for Breland’s signature.

When not wheeling and dealing, Breland says he’s doing whatever the rest of the family is into. One of those things is tennis. His son Breece was in his office recently and asked why a picture of tennis champion Rafael Nadal was on his wall. “[Nadal has] this saying, ‘Stay hungry, stay humble.’ That’s a pretty good motto to live by,” Breland says.

E-mail comments to jlafayette@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @jlafayette

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