Barry Meyer Set the Tone Warner

(From the pages of the March 26 issue of Variety.)

No one whose last name isn’t Warner has held top posts at Warner Bros. as long as Barry Meyer.

There wasn’t much happening on the Burbank lot when Meyer left ABC in 1971 to become a business affairs exec in Warner Bros.’ TV department. The studio had exactly one show on the air: ABC’s “The F.B.I.”

But things turned out pretty well for Meyer, and for Warners. Meyer was taken under wing by mentors such as Frank Wells and Bob Daly, which set him on an upwardly mobile path culminating with his appointment as chairman-CEO in 1999. Kevin Tsujihara succeeded him as CEO on March 1, but Meyer remains chairman through the end of the year.

Of all the CEOs I’ve interviewed, Meyer may be the one who seems most comfortable in his own skin. Certainly he’s enjoyed the kind of job security that makes a person candid and confident. I’ve interviewed him at length over the years for two books on the TV biz and countless stories. I never get the sense he’s trying to sell me anything; rather he articulates, in professorial way, his views on a particular subject. Even when the questions are tough, I never get the sense he feels the need to sell me.

Having served as a “junior partner” overseeing television during the Daly-Terry Semel regime, Meyer has been steering large swaths of Warner Bros.’ biz for four decades. He is the epitome of the management culture that is so prized at the studio, which expects execs to be performance-driven but never too flashy.

Meyer’s rise to the top came at an auspicious time for Time Warner. A week after then-TW topper Jerry Levin put him in the job, Levin rounded up Meyer and other division heads for a two-week trek through China that ended in Shanghai, where Levin connected with AOL chairman Steve Case at a media confab.

“You know the rest,” Meyer says with a knowing smile.

Time Warner survived the AOL merger — the single-biggest implosion of the early dot-com era — thanks to the strength of its old-media assets. Now, as the possibilities for the digital future envisioned at the time of the AOL-TW union are actually taking shape for Hollywood, Meyer sees blue skies for Warner Bros.

“There is no better time than right now to be in the content-production business,” Meyer says. “This is the golden age. Kevin is a very, very good choice (for CEO) because he’s a student of new technologies. At the same time, he knows all the people here because he’s been here such a long time.”

After the WB transition, Meyer intends to remain active with a number of charities, and he recently joined the board of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. He’s advising the museum on the curation of an exhibit on the influences that shape pop culture — something he’s had a front-row seat to for more than 40 years.

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