Rosenblum’s future on WB lot remains unsettled

TV Group president may depart studio when his deal ends in August

Now that Warner Bros. TV Group president Bruce Rosenblum has been passed over for the CEO job, the question is whether he will remain at the studio.

Ultimately, however, it may not be his decision.

Rosenblum’s current deal ends in August, and newly tabbed CEO Kevin Tsujihara may want to bring in someone new to run the TV group or promote someone from within — think Warner Bros.’ popular TV president Peter Roth — to the top smallscreen job on the lot.

Though Rosenblum has succeeded in putting Warner Bros. on top as the most productive TV studio in town, Tsujihara could be concerned about dealing with an employee who feels slighted. The lingering sting over not receiving the Golden Ticket to take Warner Bros. into the future as its new CEO could affect Rosenblum’s relationship with Tsujihara.

The drawn-out, extremely public process of appointing a successor to Warner Bros. chairman-CEO Barry Meyer was antithetical to what insiders on the Burbank lot refer to as “the Warner Bros. way.” The studio has long prided itself on stability and humility among its top execs.

Speculation about the studio’s future boss was fired up from the moment Time Warner chief Jeff Bewkes set in motion the “bakeoff” among Tsujihara, Rosenblum and Jeff Robinov for the CEO title. Rather than quieting the industry chatter, the September 2010 decision to extend Meyer’s contract by another two years and create an “office of the president” comprised of the three execs only heightened the scrutiny of the trio, on and off the lot. It also suggested a more top-down approach to running the studio’s three main business units — and that has never been the Warner Bros. corporate business model.

More than any of the other majors, sources say, WB is run as a series of fiefdoms — a mentality that predates Meyer’s 14-year tenure as CEO. The news of Tsujihara’s appointment on Monday came as a shock to most execs in the TV and film units, in part because he’s such an unknown commodity to most of them.

The film, homevid and TV divisions have few crossover activities, and historically, there’s never been much high-level brainstorming or information sharing among senior management. There’s also little cheerleading for individual accomplishments, but rather an emphasis on respecting the studio’s collective muscle around the world and the storied legacy that goes all the way back to the five Warner brothers who got their start in the nickelodeon biz a century ago.

“They leave you alone to run your business,” said a top WB exec. “As long as you run it well, they let you do your own thing.”

The culture of autonomy extends across the country to the Time Warner corporate offices in Gotham. Few if any execs on the Burbank lot had any real insight into Bewkes’ thinking about the CEO succession issue because he wasn’t showing his hand. When media reports emerged last summer that Rosenblum’s appointment was a fait accompli, Bewkes didn’t hide his exasperation, telling reporters that he would make up his mind when he was good and ready.

Almost as frustrating as the run-up to the decision was the mystery around why Rosenblum didn’t get the job. Many on the lot and around Hollywood thought he would be given the CEO title.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed; who wouldn’t be?” he said in a corporate statement that was surprising in its honesty. “Warner Bros. is a unique and special place, and I know it will be in good hands with Kevin at the helm. I continue to be proud of our accomplishments, and I have the most respect and admiration for our amazing team at the studio — a team that is thriving in an ever-transforming business.”

The conventional wisdom had settled on Rosenblum because Warner’s thriving TV group is such a big part of the studio’s overall business — not to mention the importance of TV profits (also harvested from Turner nets and HBO) to Time Warner. Some industry insiders speculated that Bewkes took a counterintuitive approach in assessing the CEO needs and that Rosenblum may have been handicapped by his own success as leader of the TV Group.

The division heads and organizations below him are solid and stable — meaning that they can withstand his departure should he move on.

If Rosenblum leaves, those to be considered for the post would include not only Roth — who also runs reality-heavy Warner Horizon and Warner Bros. Animation — but three others who report directly to Rosenblum.

Jeffrey Schlesinger is the well-regarded longtime boss of Warner Bros. Intl. and has helped the studio pocket billions from the global sales of WBTV series. There’s also Hilary Estey McLoughlin, who heads Telepictures, and Ken Werner, in charge of domestic TV distribution.

Many insiders believed Rosenblum would have ultimately been the best choice as CEO based on Warner Bros.’ healthy TV business, which accounts for more than 50% of WB’s revenue. WBTV has over 50 series — scripted and reality — on the air across both broadcast and cable.

Tops for the studio right now is CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” which, in its sixth season, just hit a series high in total viewers by topping 20 million overall viewers. Show has been a goldmine for Warner Bros. not only on the domestic front in primetime but on the syndie side as well on TBS and station groups. Pricetag for the syndie sale was about $2 million per episode.

Other hit shows for Warner Bros. include NBC’s “The Voice” and newbie drama “Revolution,” both of which were instrumental in moving NBC from fourth to first in the 18-49 demo this fall, as well as “Person of Interest,” “Two and a Half Men” and “Arrow.”

Currently in the midst of pilot season, the studio has several promising shows that could move forward to series, including a pair from J.J. Abrams (including “Believe” at NBC) and “Boomerang,” a John Wells project at Fox.

The choice of Tsujihara, with a background in home entertainment and digital media, signals the skill sets that Bewkes sees as necessary to lead the studio in the future. Yet many on the TV side were surprised given that Rosenblum’s team of domestic and international execs have spearheaded virtually all of their own dealmaking in emerging markets and new-media platforms. But Bewkes has long been an inscrutable decisionmaker — as evidenced last month when he handed the reins of CNN to Jeff Zucker, a polarizing figure in the TV biz.

Of the three execs in the footrace for the CEO crown, Rosenblum has the longest tenure in the WB fold. He joined the studio in 1989 as part of its acquisition of Lorimar Telepictures. He has long been seen as a protege of Meyer’s, which also made him a logical frontrunner for the promotion. Sources said Meyer made a point of not lobbying Bewkes on behalf of any of the three.

Rosenblum’s move in 2011 to be elected post of chairman-CEO of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was seen in the industry as a bit of campaigning for the larger CEO leadership role — but that may have backfired.

A longtime colleague of Rosenblum’s said he was motivated by the TV Acad’s clear need for a strong leader with “skin in the game” as an active participant in the biz and by his natural optimism that he could make things better.

Now that Warner Bros.’ season of corporate politicking has come to a close, Rosenblum still has plenty of skin in the game. And that natural optimism? Friends predict he’ll be bloodied for a time but ultimately unbowed.

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