As executives across the television industry endeavor to find new ways to distribute their content in an on-demand world, Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent is at the front of the pack.
His Time Warner-owned division of networks—which include TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network and CNN—are selling advertisers on multiplatform deals and funneling content online and on-demand to tempt viewers across platforms. But Kent remains solidly focused on Turner's core business: building strong, branded cable-TV networks. That, he says, is the company's bread and butter.
For Kent, 52, who is receiving the Vanguard Award for Programmers, the emphasis on branding distinguishes Turner from its competitors. “We do our best when we are true to our brands,” he says. For example, “CNN does news, TNT does great drama, and TBS is comedy.”
Kent has spent nearly 15 years at Turner honing that vision. When he replaced Jamie Kellner as CEO in February 2003, the appointment marked a homecoming: He had served a year-long stint as president/COO of CNN, leaving the company in 2001 after Chairman Tom Johnson stepped down. During his time at Turner, he has also run its international division and Turner Home Entertainment, which included home video, distribution, and licensing and merchandising.
Kent says it is his earlier career as an agent at Creative Artists Agency that best prepared him for running the company. “I learned how to deal with creative people and people with all different types of egos,” he says. “You learn what really drives people and what motivates them.”
He does not see himself as a programmer: “I am a professional manager of a large organization rather than a programming impresario. I love being surrounded by smart people and getting them on the same page, working on a growth strategy and putting out great programming.”
He believes that original programming and high-profile sports brand networks. That's why there are acclaimed shows like TNT hit drama The Closer and TBS original comedy My Boys. At a time when “there are fewer and fewer of these guaranteed successful reruns coming available,” he says, “original shows distinguish you in the marketplace with advertisers and viewers.”
He also snagged sports franchises including the PGA, NASCAR, NBA and a share of postseason baseball for TNT and TBS. He tried, but lost, in a bid for a part of the NFL package last year.
Like other media companies, Turner is banking on new media's playing a larger role in the bottom line. CNN, for example, is cultivating user-generated content through its “I-report” feature, which encourages viewers to submit video and audio accounts of news. Such first-hand content was instrumental in CNN's coverage of the carnage at Virginia Tech.
Kent is wary of diluting Turner's core cable business, and Turner rarely makes full episodes of its content available off TV, except for a smattering of offerings on operators' VOD services. “We don't want to undercut the value of the services that we sell to cable and satellite operators,” he says, “but we do want broad exposure for our products.”
Maintaining that exclusivity is one way Turner brings value to cable and satellite companies. It's a network's challenge to keep cable operators happy without giving away the store. In his years at Turner, Kent says, the consolidation on the operator side has radically reshaped the industry, putting a tremendous amount of power in the hands of only a few companies (one such powerful distributor is sibling division Time Warner Cable). But even in tense negotiations, Kent is known for masterfully finding an amicable solution.
“He is a very forceful negotiator and a facilitator of collaboration whose actions almost never make it into the public eye,” says Andy Heller, president of domestic distribution for Turner Network Sales.
Indeed, the only time a Turner network has ever gone dark on a system operator, Kent notes, was when Court TV quarreled with Dish Network earlier this year. They worked it out. “We are locked in a bond of mutual need,” he says. “We don't have a business without distribution, and they don't have a business with a broad range of services, and our channels are very popular.”
That kind of leadership earns Kent industry praise. He is responsible for “strengthening and growing some of the great franchises and brands in cable,” says Decker Anstrom, president/CEO of Landmark Communications, which owns The Weather Channel.
Kent's own boss, Time Warner President/COO Jeff Bewkes, echoes such sentiments. Growing CNN's financials, launching originals on TNT and TBS, and seamlessly integrating Court TV into the portfolio, Bewkes says, Kent is positioning the company for future success on TV and beyond: “Phil is creating programming and journalism to fulfill the promise of our brands on all the different platforms.”