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Field of Dreams

Passion pays. Just ask David Levy, the man who created Turner Sports in 1990. The goal was simple: The ambitious VP wanted to separate the testosterone-heavy time from less valuable spots. "It was a dream job at a very young age," says the "golf fanatic" and admitted sports junkie.

Levy's career breakthrough forced Turner to emulate broadcasters and launch a sports division. After all, the foundation of TBS Superstation had long been Atlanta Braves baseball games. The creation of TNT brought NFL and NBA games, which would generate premium demos for any network, but Levy was getting chiseled down by buyers, who asked, "Why would David Levy, who's selling me $2-$3 CPMs in prime, now want $10?" Now they know.

His success led Turner's then-sales chief Steve Heyer to tap Levy to take over ad sales for the international networks, primarily CNN International. The challenges included selling English-language programming abroad, an absence of ratings data, and pan-regional distribution when advertisers tended to spend country-by-country. Challenge, however, is nothing new to Levy, who turned a hockey game, played while he attended Syracuse University, into his first job.

The game brought him into contact—full contact—with two men running a small local ad agency. That lead to an internship. "I got real interested in the buying side of the business," Levy says. He remembers one client, a ski shop, whose account was particularly instructive. "When you bought radio and nobody showed, you knew you bought the wrong radio station."

He's on the sell side now—in a big way. Last year, a company shakeup boosted him from international ad sales to run the $1.4 billion ad-sales operation of some of cable's highest-rated networks, including TNT, TBS, and Cartoon Network (CNN's $300 million sales operation is handled separately). And the promotion is the latest in a long line of successes.

After graduation, Levy took a job as a buyer for New York City agency SSC&B, purchasing network spots. As an ultra-junior buyer, he got stuck with cable networks, which in 1984 weren't the hottest part of TV's ad business. "It was sort of new, but little budgets were going that way," Levy says. "I realized I wanted to get on the sales side."

Levy joined Cablevision Systems' rep firm Cable Networks, selling national and regional spots that metro cable systems inserted into network feeds. Spot cable was so invisible he'd be dismissed by ad buyers who claimed, "No, I'm doing my television buy now."

"We had no ratings, didn't have a lot of penetration. Where were we on the media food chain? We were at the bottom," he remembers.

By 1986, he had jumped to Turner Broadcasting. Selling spots into slow-pitch softball on ESPN gave Levy valuable training in the "conceptual sell," promoting something other than the Nielsens, including value-added special promotions and sponsorships with cable systems. That pitch became a cornerstone of Levy's life, selling Turner's international networks, since CNN International does not subscribe to any formal Nielsen-like evaluation. His vision has paid off, as advertisers seek product placements, co-production of shows, and sponsorship of programs that wrap around movies, like TBS's Dinner & a Movie.

His current quest is to change Madison Avenue's perception of his networks. For years, buyers have had broadcast-network inventory and much smaller-generally cheaper-cable inventory. Levy encourages buyers to study TNT's and TBS's viewership, to treat them as small TV networks, not big cable networks. Call it his mantra: "I see this as a one-television world."