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Turner’s David Levy Confirms Exit From AT&T — and Hints at His Future

David Levy (President,Turner)Variety Studio Presented By
SilverHub for Variety/REX/Shutterstock

David Levy is getting ready for what is likely to be his last insider’s view of the NCAA Final Four.

In 2010, Levy was one of the principals in a surprising sports deal that brought the lucrative basketball tournament – long a mainstay broadcast event – to cable. With rights fees for the match-ups exploding, Levy worked with CBS, the longtime home of the contest, to craft a pact that let two media companies share the games, placing them across Time Warner’s TBS and TNT as well as CBS. Under the agreement, both companies work to produce the telecasts and sell ad packages to support them.

The pact “has never been replicated,” says Levy in an interview. He has been president of Turner – the TV unit that houses CNN, TNT, TBS and Cartoon Network, among other assets and is now owned by AT&T – since 2013.

Levy is leaving the company he joined more than three decades ago when he was just 24. Originally built by entrepreneur Ted Turner, the big TV unit is now part of the former Time Warner, purchased in June by AT&T for $81 billion, and the telecommunications giant is moving quickly to put its own stamp on the operation. Earlier this week, a federal appeals court reaffirmed the purchase, which had been contested by the U.S. Department of Justice. AT&T had kept WarnerMedia separate from its other operations in case a decision put the acquisition in jeopardy, but the judgment gives the company reason to put more of an imprint on WarnerMedia and its prize assets: HBO, Turner and Warner Brothers.

“I do believe that it’s going to work,” Levy says of the AT&T acquisition. “It’s just, for me, I have other career aspirations and goals.” He expects to stay with the company for another two months or so, and seems confident a new position is out there for him.

There has been speculation that AT&T offered Levy a role overseeing sports – a critical position at any modern media company, as live games have proven to be one of the few video-entertainment formats resistant to time-shifted viewing, and still command larger audiences that are valuable to advertisers.

Yet Levy has long harbored ambitions to run Turner. In 2013, he was promoted to president of the unit, after years of supervising ad sales, distribution and sports. He reported to John Martin, the former Time Warner CFO who was named to oversee Turner at the time. Levy was given responsibility for all of Turner’s domestic ad revenue, as well as oversight of creative and business activity of the unit’s signature networks and their digital brand extensions. Running just sports at AT&T wouldn’t be the type of role he had hoped to have after rising to his recent duties.

“It was time to move on,” says Levy, who declined to get into the specifics of what he may have been offered at AT&T. “I was talking to [John] Stankey [the AT&T executive who oversees WarnerMedia] and discussing the future, his vision of the company as well as my own aspirations, and they weren’t lining up.”

When Levy walks, so too will one of the strongest links WarnerMedia has with one of its most prized suppliers of programming. The NBA has been aligned with Turner for years. So deep is the relationship that Turner has a strong hand in the basketball league’s digital operations. The two parties jointly manage assets such as NBA TV, NBA.com, and NBA Mobile, which Turner has operated out of an Atlanta production facility. Levy says one of his favorite achievements is the NBA studio show Turner created that features Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.

“He is someone I’ve been talking to on an almost daily basis during my entire time at the NBA, through my various jobs and his various jobs,” says NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in an interview. He added: ”We have a strong relationship with the new AT&T management team and we will continue to have a very productive and meaningful relationship with them. I would have loved to continue working directly with David Levy, but I understand that’s how things work.”

Turner’s deal with the NBA runs through the 2024-2025 season.

“I understand the new owners of WarnerMedia have their own plans for how they are going to operate WarnerMedia,” says Silver. “I think David will quietly move into a new operating role and won’t miss a beat.”

Levy declined to comment on whether some of the executives who report to him – top Turner executives like Donna Speciale, president of ad sales or Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports -were likely to stay under the new ownership.

When he worked alongside Ted Turner during his first years at the company, Levy understood the importance of content. But in 2019, he says, distribution is just as paramount, particularly with consumers toggling between TV screens, tablets and mobile phones for video entertainment and information. “Media companies that can sit on both sides and have strong distribution and premium content are the ones that are going to win,” he says.

Levy says he hopes to be in a new role “sooner rather than later” and that “I have the luxury to kind of explore new options and see what the best fit is. The most likely scenario, it’s a pretty good bet that it will fall somewhere in the media business.”