Steve Koonin, who as entertainment chief at Time Warner’s Turner unit presided over a long run of growth at big cable networks like TNT, TBS, truTV and TCM, as well as a streak of aggressive, sometimes maverick promotional maneuvers, is leaving his post to take the reins of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, as well as an equity position in the team.
News of his departure came as a surprise to many Turner insiders. It follows the larger shakeup at the Turner unit, which also encompasses CNN, Cartoon Network and digital properties such as the Bleacher Report. John Martin, formerly chief financial officer of the media conglomerate, became CEO in January of this year, with longtime chief Phil Kent taking a chairman role prior to his retirement in December.
David Levy, a Turner executive who supervises ad sales, distribution and sports, was named president. Koonin’s departure follows that of Greg D’Alba, the longtime chief of CNN ad sales, who left in late March in a restructuring. Insiders suggest Martin is seen as a key contender for Bewkes’ job at some point in the future, with Levy working to establish his credibility as an operating executive at the unit.
A former marketing executive at Coca-Cola, Koonin has long burnished his love for Atlanta, where Turner is headquartered. “In the past few months, I was invited to become an investor in the Atlanta Hawks,” he said in a memo reviewed by Variety. “During our investor conversations, it became quickly apparent that the Hawks needed local leadership as well as a face and voice for the franchise. I have accepted the position of CEO and Part-Owner of the Atlanta Hawks. The job is consistent with my desire to make a difference in my community and finish my career in Atlanta.”
Sources close to the situation said that Koonin made the decision to jump to the Hawks. His bona fides as a sports nut are indisputable, but he may also have heard some footsteps coming. Levy is expected to oversee the Turner suite of entertainment networks for the foreseeable future, particularly through the coming “upfront” market, when U.S. TV networks try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming programming year. A search process for Koonin’s successor is expected to begin immediately, Levy said in a memo, with internal and external candidates being considered.
“We have an opportunity now to reinvigorate our core entertainment networks and brands at a pivotal time,” Levy said in a memo to staffers. “We can look with fresh eyes at positioning and programming choices; at how we are engaging with audiences; and at how we want to develop and grow these important assets. This effort will bring new voices to the conversation and reveal things we can and should do differently. It’s an exciting prospect for us all to build the future success of our great brands.”
One candidate likely to get some scrutiny is Michael Wright, president and head of programming of TNT, TBS and TCM. TNT has 10 new and returning series rolling out between June and early August, making it a high stakes summer for Wright and his team. Wright has lobbied for some of Turner’s most critically acclaimed material, including “Men of a Certain Age.” At the same time, some of his selections have not caught fire, including a high-profile noir series from Frank Darabont called “Mob City” that flopped late last year.
Koonin joined Turner in 2000, at first to run TNT, and then eventually expanded his oversight to TBS, Turner Classic Movies and, later to truTV. He was eventually named president of Turner Entertainment Networks.
Under his aegis, the company found new ways to differentiate TBS and TNT, associating the former with comedy and the latter with drama. Once known as a place for reruns of broadcast-network programs, TNT in recent years has lanced at broadcast by adding dramas like “The Closer,” Rizzoli & Isles,” “Southland” and “Men of a Certain Age.” Under Koonin’s aegis, Turner brought Conan O’Brien to TBS to advance its standing in latenight (ending a similar program from comedian George Lopez). Turner Classic Movies expanded its efforts beyond its TV network, mounting a classic-movies festival.
He spent 14 years at Coca-Cola before coming to the media concern. Prior to joining Turner, Koonin spent 14 years at The Coca-Cola Company, tackling everything from sports and entertainment marketing to supervising the soda giant’s relationship with CAA.
With that expertise in marketing came some daring promotional gambits on behalf of his networks.
In 2004, for instance, Koonin helped orchestrate the purchase of local ad time on various NBC affiliates and owned stations. In those slots, Turner ran promos forTNT showings of syndicated showing of the CBS drama, “Without A Trace.” The issue? The ads ran during “E.R.” on NBC – the same time first-run episodes of “Trace” were airing on the Eye. “If you’ve been watching ‘E.R.’ on Thursday nights,” a narrator in the ads said, “you’ve missed the drama critics say is…Gripping. Stylish. Addictive.” When NBC got word of the existence of the promos on its stations’ air, it had them pulled.
And in 2008, TBS tested an in-your-face maneuver by running a promo during its showings of animated sitcom “Family Guy.” To draw attention to “The Bill Engvall Show,” Engvall would pop up at the bottom of the screen while “Family Guy” was running, and try to talk about his show. When he noticed he was competing with the cartoon, he arranged for the show to freeze while he finished talking up his coming appearance. Then he let the show proceed anew, with the audience discovering after just a few more seconds that it was time for a commercial break.
Koonin also thought fast on his feet. In 2011, as thousands of ad buyers, sponsors, journalists, and even Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes crowded into an amphitheater to watch a glitzy upfront presentation for TNT and TBS, the high-tech video system at the center of the show suddenly and mysteriously went dead. Koonin had to come out, make a few cracks and throw himself on the mercy of the audience. Ultimately, the honest comments did a lot to save the day.
Here are Koonin’s and Levy’s memos to Turner staffers regarding Koonin’s departure:
Steve Koonin memo
I set my guiding principle as a very young man that living in Atlanta, the home of my family and friends for multiple generations, was the key for lifetime happiness. For the past 28 years, I have been able to live and work in a senior leadership role in my hometown for two fantastic companies. I was very lucky to be a part of Coca-Cola’s incredible global growth in the 80’s and 90’s.
In February 2000, I walked into Turner Broadcasting after being invited to run TNT. I was 42 years old, had a full head of brown hair and dreams of taking the consumer lessons I learned from Coca-Cola and apply them to TV. I am truly gratified in saying that TNT, TBS, TCM and truTV have become familiar and beloved brands to TV viewers all over the USA.
Building strong brands and a continual focus on building a culture at TEN are just two of the major accomplishments that occurred on our collective watch. In addition to our brands and culture, we collectively accomplished a 10 year plus vision of becoming “broadcast replacement”. The dynamic combination of our relentless parity with broadcast messaging, hit original programming that won critical praise and record setting ratings, along with our best in class publicity and marketing has allowed us to plant our flag at the summit of this lofty goal. It is now an established fact that cable TV is every bit as good, if not better than, broadcast television.
It is no secret that I have a passionate love of sports, particularly for our local teams. In the past few months, I was invited to become an investor in the Atlanta Hawks. During our investor conversations, it became quickly apparent that the Hawks needed local leadership as well as a face and voice for the franchise. I have accepted the position of CEO and Part-Owner of the Atlanta Hawks. The job is consistent with my desire to make a difference in my community and finish my career in Atlanta.
I learned many lessons in my 14 years at Turner that I will take with me to my new position as CEO and an Owner of the Hawks. I look at this new opportunity as the chance to be a steward of another Ted Turner legacy. As a native Atlantan, I vividly remember being at one of the first Hawks games after they made the move from St. Louis. The Hawks came to life when Ted took over the team in the 70’s. Over time and under Ted’s leadership, the Hawks were the class of the Atlanta sports scene. I am hoping that we can reignite that spark and help the Hawks bring an NBA Championship to our hometown of Atlanta. I keep telling myself that I am not leaving Turner, but rather I have chosen a transfer to another division.
Now comes the hard part. I am very glad my iPad is waterproof. Absolutely none of my success would be possible without the amazing talents of the people that worked with me day in and day out for the past 5156 days. I have watched my direct report leadership teams grow into world class strategy, finance, PR, business affairs, on-air, marketing, programming, business operations, sponsorship, digital and brand-building executives of all four of our networks.
I have also been so incredibly lucky to watch you grow in your personal and professional lives. Every day, you display the values of integrity, community, family and company that make you so successful today and will continue to in the future. I have watched you recruit and grow the next generation of leadership and I am sure they will keep these wonderful networks growing and thriving for years to come.
One of my favorite songs is Green Day’s “Time of your Life”
Another turning point
A fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist
Directs you where to go
So make the best of this test
And don’t ask why
It’s not a question
But a lesson learned in time
It’s something unpredictable
But in the end it’s right
I hope you had the time of your life
Here at Turner, I have certainly had the time of my life and I hope you have as well. I wish all of you lots of love and good wishes for the future. Please root for the Hawks, and rest assured that I will always be cheering for our networks and you.
David Levy memo
By now you’ve heard Steve Koonin’s news that he is leaving Turner Broadcasting for an opportunity outside our company. I imagine your feelings on his decision are like mine: mixed. On one hand, I’ll miss Steve’s vision, creativity and leadership at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies. Their success is a direct result of his professional and personal investment. I know that many of you would use those same words to describe his influence on you and your work. There’s no better tribute than that.
On the other hand, I am pleased for Steve that his next challenge is so right for him now. Most of us are lucky to claim one dream job in a career. Steve is going to a third one (after Coca-Cola and Turner) that will leverage his passion, experience and hometown Atlanta roots in a very exciting way. So while it’s a big change, it’s a good one—for Steve and, ultimately, for the Turner businesses he has led.
Change is happening across our company now. In the rapidly evolving media business environment, it’s imperative that we embrace and lead change in order to drive growth across our businesses. We have industry-leading profitable brands with potential for upside and results that will outpace our competitors. These changes reflect a larger plan to evolve Turner for next-generation success and profitability. We have an opportunity now to reinvigorate our core entertainment networks and brands at a pivotal time. We can look with fresh eyes at positioning and programming choices; at how we are engaging with audiences; and at how we want to develop and grow these important assets. This effort will bring new voices to the conversation and reveal things we can and should do differently. It’s an exciting prospect for us all to build the future success of our great brands.
At the same time, we have to ensure that these vital components of the larger Turner portfolio continue to run smoothly for our consumers, distributors, advertisers and business partners. I’ll work closely with the Turner Entertainment Networks leadership team to sustain our momentum through the critical Upfront season while engaging longer-term thinking on our entertainment networks and the qualities and fit required of the next executive leader of Turner Entertainment Networks. That process, including an internal and external search, begins immediately.
Turner’s entertainment networks are leaders, and the people at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies are some of the best in the industry. We have Steve to thank for that, and I have. I know you will share your thanks and best wishes with him. He’ll have a great next chapter, and so will we.