Hands-off approach works for topper Kent

Even though he once toiled as an agent under Michael Ovitz at CAA, Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent says he now relishes being a Hollywood outsider.

But Kent may just be kidding himself — Turner’s push into original programming has given him and the cabler new clout in the biz over the past five years. On the occasion of Turner’s 40th anniversary, Kent, in a rare interview, shared with Daily Variety his approach to Hollywood as his company redoubles efforts to produce more programming for its TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network channels.

Kent said that his strategy is not to meddle with his ex-ecutive team in Los Angeles.

“The last thing we want to do,” he said, “is have the Atlanta contingency come and play in Hollywood.” He believes in his team’s recent track record so much that Kent said he wouldn’t rule out doing four nights a week of original shows in primetime on TNT, an effort for a cable channel that would come closest to replicating a broadcast net model.

With Time Warner spinning off AOL and its cable distribution business in the past year, Turner has never been more crucial to the parent, accounting for nearly half of its earnings. That puts enormous pressure on Kent from a shareholder perspective to produce results, which in large measure will come down to how many viewers tune in to Turner’s shows.

There was a time when Turner’s image in Hollywood was closely associated with Ted Turner’s pet projects, the historical movies. Remember “Ironclads,” the tale of the two Civil War submarines, the Monitor and the Merrimack? Kent said that today when Hollywood people think of Turner they are more likely to recall critically acclaimed shows like “The Closer,” “Rizzoli and Isles” and “Leverage.”

Since Kent was named CEO in 2003, the budgets for original programming at TNT and TBS have quadrupled (the company won’t disclose dollars), and in the past three years the hours of original programming on the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have tripled.

While some CEOs micro-manage to the point of making casting decisions, Kent said he gives all the latitude to Michael Wright, the head of programming at TNT, TBS and TCM, and Robert Sorcher, in a similar role at Cartoon.

“These guys are the face of Turner in Hollywood,” Kent said. “That is probably going to get me in trouble with Steve and Stu” — referring to prexies Steve Koonin and Stuart Snyder, to whom Wright and Sorcher report, respectively.

Of course, Kent watches all the new projects and ultimately has the final say, but he said he tries to be as hands-off as possible.

“The most important advice I can give any senior executive,” Kent said, “is know what you don’t know.” For example, he admits to being wrong about some initial reservations he had about Ray Romano’s show, “Men of a Certain Age,” which airs on TNT. He said he felt some of the characters weren’t believable, but after discussing with Wright, he got on board with the show,

Turner’s pipeline is as full as it has ever been with as many as 20 scripts in active development at TNT and 10 more at TBS. That is roughly double the number of prospective projects compared to five years ago.

Kent said nothing gives him more pleasure than seeing a show like the animated series, “Adventure Time,” on Cartoon become a hit. Originally an animated short created by Pendleton Ward, Cartoon expanded into a full series. The success of “Adventure Time” and of “Ben Ten” on Cartoon even prompted Kent to make his first visit to Comic-Con in July, where he said he was resoundingly abused for wearing a crisp blue blazer among the costumed masses.

For all the strides Turner has made in original programming, the off-net lineup, such as “Family Guy” and “The Office” on TBS, is still a critical piece of the strategy, Kent said. But who knows, he added, if more people chose to watch those shows on services like Netflix, the value of off-net programs to cable channels may be diminished. That is why Kent hasn’t ruled out doing a full primetime lineup of original shows some day, most likely on TNT. “Maybe four nights,” he said. “I still think Friday nights are good for movies.”

In his seven years as CEO, Kent’s overriding mission has been to bring Turner’s outlets into parity with the broadcast networks, particularly in the rates advertisers pay. The CPMs for news, sports and mostly recent for “Conan” in late night are even with those on the nets, Kent said, and the gap has narrowed considerably for scripted programs. “The gap will continue to narrow significantly as we do more original shows,” he added.

Beyond primetime, Kent said he is overjoyed with the $10.8 billion deal that Turner announced with CBS in April to carry the NCAA men’s basketball tournament until 2024. And plans to replicate that partnership for an Olympics bid? “Highly unlikely,” Kent said. “Who wouldn’t want the Olympics, but at what cost?”

On getting Conan O’Brien to come to cable, Kent attributes that coup to Koonin. “All I really did was approve the deal points from my hotel room in Jerusalem (where he was vacationing),” he said. He also gave a nod to HBO co-prez Richard Plepler, who introduced O’Brien’s producer Jeff Ross to Koonin.

Most of Kent’s weeks are split between Turner’s headquarters in Atlanta and the parent’s in New York, where much of his time recently has been devoted to fixing CNN. Kent said CNN’s ratings woes are immaterial to Turner overall from a financial perspective.

“This is a reputational issue,” he said. Kent vehemently defends the decision to replace Larry King with Piers Morgan, once a judge on “America’s Got Talent.” “He is a great interviewer. Most Americans have only seen him in this narrow role. They haven’t seen the journalist, the daily newspaper editor.”

When asked whether there was anything at Turner that he wished he had, Kent said: “Of course I would want a younger audience, but not at the expense of a hit show. I will take the hit every time.”

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