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Kellner Folds Two-Year Turner Show

Jamie Kellner's two-year reign as chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. ended last week, as he joined a growing list of AOL Time Warner Inc. executives to step down from major posts.

Opting to concentrate his efforts on running broadcast network The WB, Kellner hands over a wounded Cable News Network, several other high-profile cable networks and AOL Time Warner's Atlanta sports franchises to former CNN president Phil Kent. Kent himself walked away from Turner in 2001, after a short stint as head of the CNN News Group.

Kent will report to AOL Time Warner Inc. entertainment and networks group chairman Jeffrey Bewkes. In addition, The WB leaves Turner's stable, returning to Warner Bros., where Kellner will report to Warner chairman Barry Meyer.

Rumors of Kellner's departure began as early as last summer, after AOL Time Warner COO Bob Pittman's ouster left Kellner reporting to Bewkes — once an equal to Kellner as Home Box Office's chairman and CEO.

Kellner said he wanted to leave Atlanta-based Turner mainly so he could move back to Santa Monica, Calif. He made his intentions known to Bewkes late last year and planned to stay through the summer, but left early to lock in Kent, whom Bewkes said was close to taking a CEO slot somewhere else. Kent officially takes over March 10.

Imperfect fit

Kellner's contract with The WB runs through 2004, at which point he plans to retire.

"I want to spend time with my family and enjoy myself," he said.

Industry observers feel the broadcast-savvy Kellner was uncomfortable in Atlanta overseeing AOL Time Warner's cable properties and leaned too heavily toward The WB when making programming decisions.

Several network-level Turner executives left high-profile posts as Kellner reorganized and shifted programming priorities.

Longtime original programming executive Robert DeBitetto left when Turner Network Television shifted its focus to high-profile theatrical movies and off-network series. He's now A&E Network's senior vice president of programming.

Former Cartoon Network president Betty Cohen left a year after Kellner arrived. Cartoon began to cut back on original programming and worked more closely with The WB, airing shows like Pokémon.

Turner executives like Kent, who knows the company's inner workings and is considered less of a maverick than the aggressive Kellner.

"People here are welcoming Phil with open arms," one Turner network executive said.

Kent is also a favorite of departing AOL Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner, who was not enamored with Kellner — particularly over the direction in which he took CNN, sources said.

Bewkes diffused talk of Ted Turner's role here, but did say the Turner Broadcasting founder was aware of Kellner's plans and was involved in the search for a successor.

Kellner and Turner butted heads over the proposed merger of CNN and ABC News, which fell by the wayside last week. Kellner said he was "disappointed" that did not go through, but it did not factor into his decision to leave.

Kellner's legacy

Turner Broadcasting — which includes TNT, TBS Superstation, Cartoon, CNN, Turner Classic Movies and Turner South — is one of the few profitable divisions of AOL Time Warner, earning a reported $1 billion a year.

Under Kellner, TBS Superstation and TNT consistently placed among the top-10-rated cable networks, particularly in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 demographic.

Mixing sports, off-network movies and acquired series, TNT finished first in households for January, averaging a 2.0 rating, besting last year's household ratings winner, Lifetime Television.

On the down side, Cartoon Network has struggled in the ratings. Last year, its 1.6 primetime household rating was down 6 percent from 2001.

TBS president of general entertainment networks Brad Siegel blamed Cartoon's cutbacks in original programming in the recession and AOL Time Warner's financial problems. But Cartoon's "Adult Swim" block, aimed at 18-to-49-year-olds, has attracted new viewers. And Cartoon forged a successful relationship with The WB for sharing programming and promotional opportunities — a practice that will continue.

Kellner enlivened CNN and sister service Headline News' on-air looks, and recruited the likes of Aaron Brown and Connie Chung. But CNN continues to get pounded in the ratings by rival Fox News Channel.

In January, CNN's 0.8 rating was well below Fox News's 1.2 mark in total households, and Fox also bested CNN in the important 18-to-49 and 25-to-54 demos.

Headline News ratings continue to hover around the 0.2 mark, down 33 percent from last year.

Yet Bewkes said CNN is in very good shape — its ratings are up 40 percent over the last couple of years — "and that has been done by not challenging but augmenting the integrity of the journalism."

As for changes, Kent said he didn't envision many, except that Turner Broadcasting will look to sell its pro sports teams: baseball's Atlanta Braves, basketball's Atlanta Hawks and hockey's Atlanta Thrashers.

Nearly all of the executives who moved with Kellner from the WB will remain at Turner, including company executive vice president of corporate communications Brad Turell.

One question mark: Turner executive vice president of programming Garth Ancier, who holds a similar role with The WB. Sources said Ancier's future has yet to be determined.

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.