Ancier turns to Turner

TV veteran will head programming at new networks division

Maybe the third time is the charm for Garth Ancier and Jamie Kellner. Ancier, who was let go as NBC's top entertainment executive in December after a turbulent 18-month stint, has been named executive vice president of programming at Turner Networks, the newly created division Kellner took over earlier this month.

The job is a new slot at TBS and threatens to stomp on the turf of the heads of the company's cable networks, particularly Brad Siegel at Turner Entertainment Networks and Betty Cohen at Cartoon Network. Programming and marketing are the primary duties of network heads at TBS, with other key functions-ad and affiliate sales among them-handled by corporate.

This is the third time Kellner has hired Ancier to run a programming division, and it's his first executive move since taking over the empire Ted Turner built. Kellner initially hired Ancier to be Fox's first entertainment president, then brought him over to The WB six years ago to create a programming department. Now he's counting on Ancier to bring together the promotion and programming divisions at CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network and The WB under the new AOL Time Warner banner.

"Garth and I complement each other in many ways and have shared great success," says Kellner. "This challenge may be the most exciting opportunity that we have faced. Unlike the start-up of new businesses, which we are used to, the Turner networks already have tremendous programming assets, enormous promotional power and an efficient distribution system. Our goal this time is to combine these broadcast and cable assets into the premium entertainment-networks company that will be the envy of the industry."

Ancier's post is not aimed at overriding the authority of those who currently run each of the Turner networks, Kellner promised after announcing the hire to media buyers and advertisers gathered in Los Angeles last week. All programming heads of the Turner Networks divisions-including Susanne Daniels and Jordan Levin at The WB, Siegel and Cohen-will continue to report to Kellner.

"My goal is to have the same kind of atmosphere that we have at The WB, which is a family of people, all playing as a team," Kellner says. "It's all about getting people in the right creative mode. We are not going to go in and make assumptions that we think things are wrong. We are going to assume things are right because, right now, TBS is the No. 1 cable network; TNT is No. 2 or maybe No. 3."

Kellner says Ancier will work as his creative partner on "big-picture" issues, allowing the heads of each of the Turner networks to handle the day-to-day operational issues.

But TBS staffers certainly don't take Ancier's hire as strong evidence that Kellner will have a light touch. Kellner initially insisted his approach to TBS' top-rated networks was, "I'm not here to fix something that ain't broke." But he instantly scuttled Siegel's plan to continue carrying wrestling programming from TBS' World Championship Wrestling after the completion of the January agreement to sell the operation. Buyer Fusient scrapped the $75 million purchase once Kellner reneged on the TV agreement, and the circuit is now headed for rival World Wrestling Federation at a far lower price.

"That was his first week on the job," notes one TBS executive. "What will they do after a month?"

Issues up for review include TBS' and TNT's heavy investment in buying theatrical movies in the window traditionally reserved for broadcast networks. Those movies have generated high ratings but also much higher costs.

"Keller is there to drive the profit margin up 10%," says one Wall Street analyst. "One goal is to develop programming more cheaply."

Ancier has been widely acclaimed for helping develop smart shows that appeal to the youngsters advertisers covet. At The WB, that included Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek and Felicity.

But he had an embarrassingly short stint at NBC, booted by President Scott Sassa just weeks after his first fall series slate launched last September.

Details on Ancier's actual duties at Turner are still sketchy. Kellner first pitched the idea to him only a week ago, and the final details on his contract weren't hammered out until last Tuesday morning. Ancier, who is widely respected in Hollywood for his creative capabilities, was mulling various offers in Los Angeles, including one from Fox, sources say.

"I made this decision because, I truly mean this, there is a historic opportunity here, where you have a major broadcast network and major entertainment cable networks aligned under a corporate management team," says Ancier, who will be working out of Los Angeles and Atlanta. "That has never happened before in broadcasting and cable. And every 20- to 30-year-old I know in America has an AOL address. Here's a way to synergize the two so that we can have a real voice to that generation."

Ancier and Kellner say viewers will likely soon see shows airing multiple times on The WB, TNT, TBS and The Cartoon Network. "It's simply inconceivable to me that you can make shows that cost $2 million an hour and keep exhibiting them in the pattern we are exhibiting them now," Ancier says, pointing to USA and NBC's split window on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Both executives also expressed interest in rebranding CNN. "I think we are going to have some fun with CNN on the promotion side," Kellner says. "Making it a little younger-looking without trying to go young, because it's the news."