After being passed over for the top CNN job at Turner Broadcasting System Inc. in the summer of 2001, Phil Kent gave notice, packed his bags and traveled the world, spending time on four continents: Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa.
But even he could not have predicted that his journey would end in Atlanta with an even better job at TBS than the one he had coveted.
Last week, the purveyor of some of cable's most-watched networks and one of AOL Time Warner's most profitable divisions announced that Jamie Kellner is stepping down as chairman and CEO and that Kent will be the successor.
The move marks not only the end of Kent's professional roundtrip but also the partial restoration of the old guard at Turner. After AOL and Turner parent Time Warner merged in 2000, the new management led by Steve Case, Jerry Levin and Bob Pittman placed Kellner in charge of Turner and bounced Terry McGuirk and his team of Turner veterans.
Last month, Jim Walton, a 22-year CNN hand, was named to replace Walter Isaacson as head of CNN after Isaacson accepted the top job at the Aspen Institute. Levin and Kellner had selected Isaacson, a Time
magazine editor and writer, over Kent in 2001, prompting Kent's professional sabbatical. (Case, Levin and Pittman have left or are leaving the company.)
"This the final break with everything that was supposed to be the new
wave," said a former Turner Broadcasting executive.
Kellner's exit is no surprise. He was unhappy (and some believe out of place) in Atlanta. Now he will return to Los Angeles and continue to oversee The WB, the successful broadcast network he has guided since its launch in 1995. He'll stay there at least until his contract expires next year.
Although a surprise, AOL Time Warner's decision to bring Kent home also seems a logical choice to those inside and outside the company.
Short learning curve
"Phil brings what few people can: He has run a lot of different parts of this company," said Turner Entertainment President Brad Siegel, who will report to Kent. "There would be a big learning curve for someone who had never worked at Turner to come in and get it. Phil hits the ground running."
It makes sense, agrees Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, "given his background and familiarity with the Turner networks, as well as the support of Ted Turner."
Although stepping down as vice chairman of AOL Time Warner, Turner is a major shareholder and continues to carry weight inside the company, especially with regard to TBS, which he founded and once controlled.
"[Kent] has relationships across our company and the industry that will make him very successful leading Turner companies," says Jeff Bewkes, chairman of AOL Time Warner Entertainment and Networks, to whom Kent will report.
As television executives go, Kent is a different breed than Kellner. He is regarded as a consummate manager, a master of strategy and operations with a keen understanding of the creative side. Kellner is a Hollywood insider, a programming whiz who started up Fox and The WB.
New York to Atlanta
A native of New York's suburban Westchester County, Kent is a protégé of Dan Burke, former head of Capital Cities/ABC, who helped Kent land his first TV job as a sales associate for Blair Television. After a stint as a station rep and then in Blair's fledging syndication unit, Kent joined Creative Artists Agency as a packaging agent. "He is well-balanced on the creative and business sides," said Lee Gabler, an old friend and now head of television for CAA. "He could have stayed here as long as he wanted."
It was Scott Sassa, then head of Turner Broadcasting and now special consultant to NBC, who lured Kent to Atlanta in 1993 to head Turner's small division for home video, licensing and merchandising, and book publishing. After Turner merged with Time Warner in 1995, Kent was dispatched to London to run Turner's international operations. In 2000, he was recruited to return stateside and run the business side of CNN. "CNN was not broken," he recalls, "but the costs were spiraling too high, and revenue growth was starting to flatten."
In part, that meant shaving about 400 staffers, or 10% of CNN's workforce. Kent says he and his lieutenants labored to spare as many staffers as possible, reassigning many inside CNN and Turner.
Snubbed for top spot
When then-CNN Chairman Tom Johnson stepped down in summer 2001, Kent wanted to run CNN. He thought he was ready. But the powers-that-be did not. "I didn't feel the chairman/CEO position needed to be filled. All CNN needed was a president," he recalls. (Kent says CNN will not get another chairman; as president, Walton will run the operation.)
Prior to his departure, Kent played a part in some of the much discussed changes to CNN, sprucing up packaging and bringing in stars like Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn. The ballyhooed Headline News overhaul and CNN's $15 million streetside Manhattan studio also sprouted in those days.
The 48-year-old Kent said he was considering an offer from another media company (he declines to say which one) when Bewkes came calling a few weeks ago.
Back in Atlanta now, where he always has kept a home, he is getting reacquainted with Turner and was present at network meetings last week.
He is hesitant to predict changes he may make, contending that everything is too new. He has kept up with the news business ("CNN looks terrific. [The] prime time schedule is a great success.") The entertainment channels, particularly TNT and TBS Superstation, though, have been far from his mind.
Kent isn't setting up shop in Ted Turner's old, rambling office and, contrary to some reports, doesn't have plans to turn it into a shrine to Turner.
He does, however, want to preserve Ted Turner's real legacy. "I want people to feel there is a sense of mission, like they are part of something larger than just a business."
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