An open primary for WB’s topper search?

MEMO TO: Gerald Levin

FROM: Peter Bart

SPECULATION ABOUT POSSIBLE successors to Bob Daly and Terry Semel has become the favorite indoor pastime in Hollywood, yet virtually nothing is known about either the candidates or the process. Last week’s decision by Leslie Moonves to withdraw from the race and re-up at CBS has only heightened the gossip frenzy.

These circumstances would seem to present you with a rare opportunity, Jerry. Given the extraordinary size and importance of the Time Warner empire, why not clear away the cobwebs and open up the entire process? You’ve always been an innovator, so here’s a chance to set some precedents.

First, a list of the prime candidates could be announced. Since your ultimate choice would have to serve a wide range of constituencies within the entertainment community, representatives of those constituencies could be called upon to deliver their views. A degree of old-fashioned electioneering would even be encouraged.

To be sure, the final decision would still be yours, Jerry — yours, Ted Turner’s and whoever else may be involved. The fact that even the decision-making machinery remains shrouded points up the magnitude of the problem.

Now I understand that all this flies in the face of conventional corporate governance, Jerry, but yours is hardly a conventional company. The Time Warner entity as it exists today is not so much a corporation as a nation state, with revenues of $ 26 billion compared to a paltry $ 12.8 billion for News Corp.

It sprawls over movies, broadcasting, music, magazines and the Internet and exerts a vital influence over global pop culture.

Hence the job of ruling this empire far surpasses that of the normal corporate apparatchik. It is a sort of public trust, with deep-seated layers of accountability.

Now I realize, Jerry, that some people who read this might conclude that these are facetious proposals, that it is futile to suggest that corporate secrecy be invaded. But you are a thoughtful man. You know that, apart from the customary corporate intrigues, there are some serious issues at stake here.

To wit: Given that the boundaries between entertainment and news are constantly being blurred, how will Time Warner define its position in the future? Will CNN effectively assume the role of a news service for one of the major networks? Will Time Warner follow the lead of Disney in consolidating the functions of program supplier and carrier? Will Time Warner sustain its commitment to cable or will the company expand into the satellite race? Will movies be regarded as loss leaders or as potential profit centers? Will Time Warner step up efforts overseas to challenge the initiative of Sony in developing local programming or of News Corp. in gobbling up pieces of foreign broadcasting entities? Will the company aggressively acquire TV stations if government policy is changed barring cable owners from ownership?

WHEREVER ONE LOOKS, it becomes clear that, with Time Warner, public policy and public trust are constantly intersecting. What was once a straightforward media company has evolved into a vast communications monolith.

All of which brings us back to our initial proposal, Jerry. The man you are looking for must be, not so much a company bureaucrat, as a corporate statesman.

Hence, under the proposed selection process, the entertainment community will be divided into special interest sectors, much like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Your four or five principal candidates would appear before each of these groups to make their case and present credentials, much as a future Cabinet officer presents himself before congressional committees.

This interplay would enhance your candidates’ understanding of the attitudes of the community; it would also heighten the level of understanding of the problems facing Time Warner.

In the process, some of your competitors would have the opportunity to question Time Warner executives and perhaps gain insight into future policies, but no one is suggesting that these sessions become “tell-alls.” Discretion is always necessary.

CONSIDER THE END RESULT, however: Despite their many achievements, Daly and Semel came to be regarded by the entertainment community as oligarchs who were distanced from the needs and concerns of their constituents. They became enormously wealthy and also enormously remote — princely figures presiding over their fiefdoms.

Arguably, their successor should be a man of the people, Jerry — politically adept as well as accessible. How else to better select such an individual than to open up the process?

OK, so it’s an impractical idea. That’s why I edit a newspaper instead of working for a corporation.

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