Mega-conglom girds for next CEO's strategies

So what will life be like in Bewkestan?

The world’s biggest media company, Time Warner, will imminently get a new CEO, and its 96,000 denizens (indeed, the industry in general) are eager to discover what changes Jeffrey L. Bewkes will make.

To be sure, Bewkes himself, a feisty, tightly wound TW lifer, isn’t talking — and understandably so. Why reveal your strategy in a chess game as unruly as that raging in and around this corporate monolith? Some companies (Google) are the result of a great idea. TW is the result of a series of corporate collisions.

Indeed, TW is not so much a company as it is a combustible confederation of five distinct businesses, some of which have little relevance to one another. Though it leads the field in many sectors, TW shares have been inert for several years, while competitors have shown lively growth.

So can Bewkes energize this unwieldy corporate nation-state with its $44 billion in revenues? Plow through the journalistic pieces or analysts’ reports on TW and you grow both numb and disheartened. The corporate history is too battle-scarred and there are too many bodies lying beside the road — Levin, Case, Pittman, Nicholas, Collins, Fuchs et al.

Yet there’s a stalwart band of Bewkes admirers in the media business who are convinced that Bewkestan will be a far healthier place in the coming months — leaner and mobilized for improved growth.

To bring this about, of course, the new CEO (he’s scheduled to succeed Dick Parsons) will have to confront an array of daunting questions:

  • Can AOL be spun off or somehow meshed with a rival portal and can it push the transition from a subscription model to an advertising model? (Bewkes had fervently hoped six years ago that AOL would opt to acquire eBay, not TW, but he lost that round).

  • Can TW Cable, which is 84% owned by TW, be reconfigured as a separate entity that will be free to discover its own role in the chaotic digital universe?

Then there are the less cosmic but still urgent issues. Does TW want to stay in business with Bob Shaye and New Line? Should still more Time publications be sold off in the drive toward greater synergy and inter-connectivity?

Intellectually restless and harboring a dark sense of humor, Bewkes is a man who likes to move the pieces around on the chessboard. In his HBO years, he demonstrated a keen ability to ignite the creative energies around him. Taking over from Michael Fuchs, who was smart but clueless in dealing with people, Bewkes quickly established himself as a sharp-witted strategist who thrived on debate.

The debates didn’t always go his way and indeed some of his friends are surprised that Bewkes himself didn’t become roadkill. One reason: He had the protective cover of HBO. Further, Bewkes is, after all, a master numbers-cruncher as well as an effusive conversationalist who could win many arguments simply by wearing down his opponents.

Asserts one colleague: “Here’s the skinny. Bewkes is the first true businessman to head this company since it all began. He’s not a deal junkie or a politician. He’s a business strategist who is completely secure within himself. He welcomes pushback, but don’t try to fool him because he’ll know and you’re in big trouble.”

The Bewkes years at HBO, one TW exec says, resulted in a tripling in revenues not mainly because of great shows like “The Sopranos,” but because “Bewkes created distribution models that worked.” His prediction is that further “grand strategies” will now start emerging at TW.

In his new role, however,

Bewkes finds himself in a different league. He must compete with the mercurial Murdoch and with a newly nimble Disney. In accomplishing this, Bewkestan may prove to be not only turbulent but also occasionally discomfiting.

The giant chess game will grow ever more intense, and Bewkes seems gleefully geared for it.

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