Exec named head of WB domestic TV distribution

Veteran TV distrib exec Ken Werner, who oversaw network distribution at the WB for the past nine years, has been named prexy of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution.

Werner will take the reins of one of the leading distributors of firstrun and off-net programming in the domestic TV marketplace. He assumes the role held for 17 years by Dick Robertson, who has been named senior adviser to the Warner Bros. Television Group.

Appointment comes somewhat out of left field in that Werner does not, strictly speaking, bring hands-on syndie sales experience to the table; instead, he’s worked extensively on the station, network and corporate sides of the biz.

That experience, however, covers a lot of ground. Werner was part of the distribution oversight team when Viacom took “The Cosby Show” into the syndie market in the ’80s and when Disney took “Home Improvement” into the market in the ’90s. Both were historically market-changing deals.

To some in the biz, the appointment of Werner heralds a new era.

“Robertson is a hard act to follow, but Ken’s varied experience and business sense may be just the ticket in this evolving market,” October Moon consultant and producers‘ rep Chuck Larsen pointed out.

The age of supersalesmen, like Robertson and (King World’s) Roger King, is waning, Larsen and others say, suggesting that new collaborative and creative skills may be needed in such a complex organization as Warners and in a new-media-mad environment.

“(Bruce) Rosenblum and company at some point decided not to just raid another syndie studio topper. They looked inhouse, but their move was bold rather than just convenient,” said one exec at another studio in analyzing the appointment. (Rosenblum, prexy of Warner Bros. Television Group, will be Werner’s boss.)

Werner, who officially begins the new gig on Monday, said he relishes the opportunity to figure out “new alliances” and “new business models.”

Several TV execs who know Werner well stress his solid business relationships, grasp of station dynamics and openness to the ideas of others, all of which should, they say, stand him in good stead in steering the distribution apparatus. (Warners has arguably the biggest domestic syndication and cable sales teams in town as well as the most product.)

“Ken’s extensive knowledge of the station community, a terrific strategic long-term vision and an inherent ability to fashion innovative solutions to address business challenges make him the perfect choice to lead our domestic distribution operation,” Rosenblum said.

Werner was part of the team that swiftly pulled off the merger between the WB and UPN netlets last winter and was purportedly asked to stay on as head of distribution at new entity the CW.

Werner, 52, said he took the syndie job at Warners because he wanted “new challenges in his life.”

Despite Warners’ huge output, some believe the studio has to work harder than the other big guns in syndication because it does not own its own network.

Even more onerous, Warner Bros. doesn’t own any TV stations that could serve as automatic outlets for its firstrun strips. Warners’ main competitors — NBC Universal, CBS Paramount, Buena Vista and Twentieth — all own lucrative TV stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major markets and often funnel their shows to these stations.

Werner will have to hit the ground running: For the 2006-07 season, WBDTD will distribute seven firstrun strips, including “Ellen,” “The Dr. Keith Ablow Show” and “The Tyra Banks Show,” as well as oversee an extensive list of off-net reruns, including “Two and a Half Men” and “Friends.”

He will also have to break in whoever replaces TelePictures Prods. prexy Jim Paratore, who is hanging out his own producer shingle at the studio.

Paratore had reported to Robertson and to Rosenblum and was responsible for developing and helping distribute many of the syndie unit’s hits.

(A logical candidate to replace Paratore at Telepictures is his longtime second-in-command Hilary Estey-McLoughlin, but it’s unclear who may succeed him as Robertson’s chief lieutenant on the distribution side. That may be a hire or promotion that Werner makes.)

A few months ago, there were several high-visibility names on Warners’ preliminary list of possible candidates to replace Robertson — including former Universal syndie topper Steve Rosenberg and MGM exec veep Jim Packer — but at some point, the studio decided to shift gears and not go after established syndie candidates. (It’s unclear how far the sounding out of other candidates ever went.)

Werner joined the WB in September 1997 as exec VP for distribution.  During his tenure he guided the netlet’s coverage of the U.S. from 56% to 94%.  (In that respect, he did have “sales” experience, since convincing stations to shift their network allegiance is arguably as difficult as getting them to agree to buy a new talkshow.)

Werner came to the netlet with an already diverse background in the entertainment industry. 

His roles included senior VP at CBS and before that at Disney in a variety of business, legal and companywide initiatives; earlier, in the ’80s, Werner held senior business affairs positions at Columbia Pictures Television and Viacom Enterprises.

Werner began his career on the business side of entertainment as an attorney.

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