The shakeup at AT&T’s WarnerMedia unit continued Friday as Turner president David Levy said he would be leaving the company after more than three decades.
Levy’s move comes a day after HBO CEO Richard Plepler announced that he was also leaving the company and two days after the Justice Department lost its appeal in its attempt to block AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner, giving AT&T full control over the media company.
AT&T executive John Stankey, last year named CEO of WarnerMedia, reportedly has been looking at ways to restructure the division, with former NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt being eyed for a big role at the company--possibly overseeing Levy and Plepler.
In a memo announcing his plans to Turner staffers, Levy said he has spent “a considerable amount of time during the past few months discussing the future landscape and vision of the company with John Stankey and the senior leadership team. After much consideration and more than 32 years at Turner, the past six years as the President of this great company, I have decided the time is right to leave my role.”
Levy, who has held posts in ad sales, international, sports and distribution, recalled key moments in the company's history, from going on ad sales calls with Turner Broadcasting founder Ted Turner, making deals to televise the NCAA’s March Madness and expanding its relationship with the NBA, to acquiring digital properties like Bleacher Report and iStreamPlanet.
“I feel a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished together,” he said. “I also want to acknowledge and thank my terrific leadership team.”
Most recently Levy had been behind The Match, the pay-per-view golf game between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. A technical glitch led to WarnerMedia having to make refunds to viewers who paid for the event, won by Mickelson, but Levy termed the event a success because its drove people to download Turner’s Bleacher Report Live app.
But after a long climb, those discussions with Stankey made it clear he wasn’t in line to run a bigger part of WarnerMedia.
Instead reports surfaced that AT&T and WarnerMedia were talking to Greenblatt, the former NBC exec, about a major role at the company.
Greenblatt had played a major role in helping Comcast turn around NBC after acquiring the network in 2010.
Greenblatt’s role at AT&T could be as head of a unit that reportedly would combine HBO and Turner, plus the new direct-to-consumer video service WarnerMedia plans to launch in order to compete with streamers like Netflix and new subscription products being launched by traditional media rivals The Walt Disney Co. and Comcast. In December, WarnerMedia put Turner chief content officer Kevin Reilly, one of Greenblatt’s predecessors at NBC, in charge of programming the streaming service, which will include shows from HBO and the Turner networks.
After acquiring Time Warner, AT&T execs initially indicated they knew they weren’t experts at the entertainment business and would try to preserve the cultures at Turner, HBO and Warner Bros.
“My goal is not to go in and try to explain to creatives how they can do their job better. That is not what I’m good at nor is it my training or my expertise,” Stankey said at an investor conference last year.
“What I do understand are things like industry structure, I understand the application of technology and distribution. I understand data and customer relationships, I understand integration and getting people to build business models effectively around the marriage of content and technology. And so my goal and my focus will be on facilitating that,” Stankey said.
But quickly the AT&T execs began pushing for an increase in the amount of programming produced by Plepler’s HBO and potentially paying for it by decreasing the original shows Levy’s Turner could produce.
“You’re number one job as an executive is appropriate allocation of capital resources. That’s just what you do as a living, to be quite candid. So John Stankey’s a big boy, he’s over running WarnerMedia. He’s got some big boy decisions to make in terms of how he allocates capital to accomplish what we want to do,” Stephenson said last year during a conference at which AT&T renamed its advertising business as Xandr.
Stephenson also noted that he thought the media business was resistant to change.
“It’s a very slow moving industry. When you talk about change and you talk about changing how the content is delivered, how content is paid for and how content is monetized, it’s going to have to change, there’s just walls go up,” he said. “It’s been intriguing to watch and I think it’s going to be fun to go through this process and see if we can make some of these pivots.”
No successor has yet been named for Levy. Plepler is expected to be replaced by Casey Bloys, now president for programming at HBO.
Here is Levy’s memo to Turner’s staff:
I have some news to share regarding an important career decision. When you spend nearly your entire professional career at one company, a decision like this does not come easy. I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past few months discussing the future landscape and vision of the company with John Stankey and the senior leadership team. After much consideration and more than 32 years at Turner, the past six years as the President of this great company, I have decided the time is right to leave my role.
I am ready for a professional change. It is hard to believe but I joined Turner back in 1986 and I have spent more than half my life at this great company (ok, contemplate that for a moment). Time moves quickly when you are having fun and doing work you truly enjoy!
It’s not easy to summarize everything in one note to truly express my gratitude and appreciation. There are too many great memories and experiences.
I walked into Turner when I was just 24 and took a role as an Account Executive. It was an exciting time to be part of an organization led by Ted Turner – one of the true pioneers and visionaries. I still can recall when Ted would come into our New York City offices and look to join us on a sales call. We would jump on a subway – no UBER or LYFT at that time - and the other riders would turn in amazement seeing Ted riding alongside them. And once we arrived at the client’s office no one was better at selling the vision of Turner and the burgeoning cable industry than him. He truly was the greatest closer!!
It was that maverick spirit Ted instilled during the early years of our company that motivated me to move forward and start the first sports sales team in 1990.
I’ve had the good fortune to work on so many different aspects of our business that took me around the world. Each stop along the way was filled with new challenges and an opportunity to learn something different. As each of you continue to manage your own careers, I encourage you to never stop challenging yourself to do more and always be willing to learn something new.
With the support of so many talented people, we have continually innovated and achieved success in entertainment, kids, sports, sales and distribution. Together we launched businesses around the globe; produced entertaining original programming throughout our portfolio; developed new, transformational, partnerships with the NCAA for ‘March Madness’ and MLB post season; expanded our relationship with the NBA to include a joint partnership managing the league’s digital portfolio; developed new distribution models for innovative consumer driven content across multiple platforms and, at the same time, continued to grow our relationships with our traditional distribution partners; we took initial steps in the direct-to-consumer space by launching new entertainment, kids and sports platforms; acquired new properties such as Bleacher Report and iStream Planet that will be key foundational business units moving forward; continued to transform and evolve in ad sales – from positioning our networks as “broadcast replacement” to showcasing the Turner upfront during the “broadcast” week in May. Today, we are a leader in audience based and addressable advertising.
That’s just a small sampling of the amazing work and I feel a great sense of pride in what we have accomplished together. I also want to acknowledge and thank my terrific leadership team for their many talents and vision they’ve continually displayed overseeing some of the best brands in media.
As I reflect on my Turner career, I have been very fortunate to work here, surrounded by so many gifted people. Along the way, I have made some lasting friendships with so many of you. To me, what makes Turner special are the people, past and present, who have shaped our culture. It’s what sets this company apart.
The next few months will be filled with many new ‘firsts’ and experiences. I am confident that you all will show that true maverick spirit this company was founded on to march forward and continue the standard of excellence we have built and enjoyed.
It’s been an amazing journey to work with all of you. We’ve shared great times together, endured more than our fair share of challenges and continually set a high-standard for results, creativity and innovation. Thank you for the role you have played in our successes. It’s truly been a rewarding and humbling experience to work alongside you.
Turner has been a significant part of my life and I will watch from the sidelines as this company continues to produce more amazing moments.
My heartfelt thanks to everyone.
Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.
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