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You couldn't get a grander accolade at Turner Broadcasting than to be compared to its swashbuckling founder. That’s what happens when you ask Turner CEO Phil Kent about David Levy, Turner’s president for ad sales, distribution and sports.
“David is the perfect blend of entrepreneur and company man,” says Kent. “He’s probably got the most significant piece of the Ted Turner DNA in him. He says, ‘We’ve got to go after this, I want us to have this,’ and he will not rest until he figures out a way to make it happen.”
Levy has helped Turner build brands in part by landing rights to high-pro! le sports that have raised awareness and ratings of TNT, TBS and truTV. The most recent example of that strategy came in March, when Turner joined CBS in televising the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
“From the first of March to the end of May, almost every day, TBS and TNT were in the press,” thanks to the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs, says Levy. “One of my biggest goals, and [Turner Entertainment President Steve] Koonin’s and Phil Kent’s, is to win nights of television. Not win nights of cable television, but win nights of television. We won 10 nights of television with men 18-49 during May. So winning nights of television with this kind of programming allows us to build our brands.”
Levy recalls watching Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption joke about when TNT’s Franklin & Bash was on because they didn’t see any promos when the NBA playoffs shifted to ABC. “They were obviously playing off the amount of promos we did,” Levy says. “But the point was [the NBA and the NCAA] are good promotion for all of our programming, and a great launching pad.”
Levy has also made Turner Sports a major player online, forming digital agreements with the NBA, NASCAR, the PGA Tour, Sports Illustrated and especially the NCAA tournament.
“The portfolio of events on Turner and the way they’ve been marketed and sold and produced, it’s very impressive, and I give David a lot of credit for that,” says Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports. “We’ve had some spirited golf competitions and, like a lot of us, he doesn’t like to lose. He’s enjoyable to be around, he has a very good sense of humor and he makes his presence known in a very positive way. He is not known to be a shrinking violet, and that’s part of the reason why he’s been as successful as he has been.”
Two years before Turner got its piece of March Madness, NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver told his friend Greg Shaheen, interim executive VP for alliances for the NCAA men’s basketball championships, that he should get to know Levy better.
“I told him first and foremost he’s a terrific partner and extraordinarily loyal,” Silver says. “You know that if an unforeseen circumstance comes up in a relationship, which invariably it does, that David is going to make an adjustment with you in the best interest of the partnership.”
Levy also manages to stay on top of the details and is always ready to push the envelope, Silver says. “Once we get a deal done, the next day he’s calling, saying he has a new idea about something we can do together.”
After their first March Madness together, Shaheen praises Levy, who “honored his word without qualification” both while negotiating the deal and putting the contract into action. Shaheen says Levy “has been visionary in terms of having an expansive outlook for how we might approach any aspect of our relationship.”
Levy, a Syracuse grad, began his career in upstate New York with Oakmont Advertising. He moved to New York, joining SSC&B as an assistant network buyer. He then joined Cable Networks Inc., selling local cable commercials. Selling spots for CNN, he caught the eye of Farrell Reynolds, who as president of sales brought Levy into Turner. From there, Levy says he has had 17 jobs in 24 years at the company.
Most recently, Levy, who was already in charge of ad sales and sports, added distribution to his portfolio in 2009. It sounds like a lot for one executive, but Kent says that since Levy added responsibilities, the company has never run better.
“There are so many tradeoffs between these different revenue streams, and particularly when you’re making these big bets on sports rights and you have to monetize them in a variety of ways,” Kent says. “It’s very beneficial to have a single point of decision-making for both distribution and ad sales and in terms of the acquisition of sports rights.”
And Levy enjoys wearing many hats. “You can be in a sports negotiation or an upfront negotiation or I can be in a digital conversation,” he says.”The diversity of my role is what makes it exciting for me.“
At home, Levy spends family time with his wife, Niki, and sons Brett and Jake. Brett, now at Syracuse, is diabetic. Levy has become active both in the University and in the Junior Diabetes Research Foundation, running an annual golf event aimed at raising money to find a cure.
“There’s another side to David that reflects the fact that he realizes that as fortunate as he’s been and as well as he’s done, he wants to give something back to society,” says McManus, noting that when he asked Levy to be the honoree at a March of Dimes sports luncheon two years ago, Levy jumped in and helped raise almost $700,000.
“One thing I love about this industry is that while we’re all competitors, we’re all supportive of each other,” says Levy. He was touched by the way the sports and media community turned out for his recent JDRF golf tournament, even as the upfront was getting under way. “It really meant a lot to me, and I think that’s what makes this media industry so special,” he says.
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