Skip to main content

Werner Takes Warner Into the Future

When Ken Werner was picked last August to succeed the legendary Dick Robertson as president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution (WBDTD), many at the studio breathed a sigh of relief. Robertson, who led the syndication outfit for 17 years, could be mercurial: gregarious one moment, intimidating the next.

Though no less opinionated than Robertson, the low-key Werner is known to be decidedly less combative, a leader who builds consensus and allows his senior managers to operate autonomously.

“Everyone has a gift and detriments, strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “It's not just about brute force and having people work 24/7. To me, it's all about being faster, better and smarter.”

Long a corporate problem-solver preferring to operate behind the scenes, Werner is stepping out of the shadows to start a new era at WBDTD and lead the studio during a turbulent period in the syndication business.

From law to showbiz

The son of Holocaust survivors (his father escaped the Nazis by climbing over the Alps to Switzerland),Werner attended law school with plans to be a public defender or civil-rights attorney. But he soon gravitated toward the entertainment industry and the promise of greater interaction with people.

After a stint as assistant executive director at the Dramatist Guild, he landed in the Viacom business-affairs office in 1983. There, he played a key role in launching The Cosby Show, which revived the sitcom genre and was the first to pass $1 billion in syndication revenues.

In 1988, he joined Disney/Buena Vista Television, where he helped bring high-grossing sitcom Home Improvement to the syndication market.

When the formation of The WB and UPN nearly forced Disney out of the kids-syndication business, company Chairman/CEO Michael Eisner turned to Werner, who helped reach a programming partnership with the Leo Burnett Agency, the first between a major studio and an ad agency, that gave Disney leverage with stations to keep its kids franchise alive for the time being.

Werner joined Warner Bros. in 1997 as head of affiliate relations for The WB. Warner Bros. TV Group President Bruce Rosenblum, who has worked with Werner for more than 20 years, praises Werner's success in snaring strong affiliates for The CW when it launched in place of The WB last year.

An “ideal and logical” successor

When Rosenblum approached him about succeeding Robertson, Werner urged him to consider more-traditional candidates first. But Werner was “the ideal and logical choice,” says Rosenblum. “He clearly has both the creativity necessary to move beyond the traditional way of thinking about our business and the astute business acumen and vision to get you there.”

Without a sister station group to launch its shows, WBDTD has been especially vulnerable to the ill winds buffeting the syndication industry. But under Werner's leadership, the studio locked up the most ambitious new first-run project yet for next fall: a newsmagazine based on AOL's celebrity gotcha site

And he oversaw the long-term renewal of Telepictures' lucrative Extra magazine series for three additional years, including on the NBC stations, which publicly indicated during negotiations that they might drop it.

The studio fell short, however, with Celebrity Jury, an ill-fated twist on the overplayed court genre. But trying and failing is perfectly acceptable, Werner says, “as long as you've done everything you can to reach the goal.”