Five years ago, then-Turner CEO John Martin unveiled a global initiative he called “Turner 2020,” a vision for the company as it entered the next decade. Of course, he couldn’t have anticipated what actually transpired before that date ever arrived: The wholesale acquisition of Turner parent Time Warner, which led to Martin’s departure — and now, the end of Turner altogether.
Much of the focus last week on the changes at WarnerMedia centered on what it all meant for HBO, and whether that premium network would lose a step without the guidance of erudite former CEO Richard Plepler. But the bigger cultural shift inside the company is actually happening in Atlanta. That’s the home base for Turner Broadcasting System — the company founded in 1965 by Ted Turner that suddenly no longer exists.
Already, press releases for networks such as TNT and TBS contain no mention of Turner, but instead are referred to as “divisions of WarnerMedia.” Turner’s annual upfronts presentation to advertisers in May is still happening — but now it’s expected to be rebranded as the “WarnerMedia upfronts.”
“There are some things that are still very much in the air,” one WarnerMedia insider says of the new company structure. “The one thing that’s pretty clear is that the Turner corporate entity is definitely going away; it’s being phased out.”
The name “Turner” won’t completely disappear, thanks to its usage in channel names (it’s the “T” in TNT, TBS and TCM, after all). But the quick purge of the corporate name is a signal that it will be a rapid evolution.
There are plenty of burning questions for employees of the now-former Turner networks, and now that the new WarnerMedia leadership is in place, corporate brass appears to be working at lightning speed to iron out the new structure. Kevin Reilly, the president of TBS and TNT and head of content for Warner Media’s new direct-to-consumer streaming platform, even had to cancel a planned SXSW appearance last Friday at the last minute in order to stay in Los Angeles — reportedly to strategize with new boss Bob Greenblatt.
“Everything’s moving very quickly,” says one exec. “The first stage for them was, ‘let’s get the leadership in place.’ And now it’s, what does the structure look like under this leadership?’ A lot of that hasn’t been shared or talked about yet.”
Said a WarnerMedia spokesperson: “These structural questions are exactly what WarnerMedia’s newly appointed leadership team have begun to tackle.”
After AT&T acquired Time Warner last year (renaming the company WarnerMedia), Turner was set aside as a safety measure while the Department of Justice challenged the merger. With a federal appeals court rejecting the DOJ’s motion, WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey wasted no time in implementing a new structure for the company; part of that new, streamlined structure led to the departure of Turner president David Levy and meant splitting up the networks that had constituted Turner into different reports.
TNT, TBS and truTV now join HBO and Warner’s new direct-to-consumer streaming service to form WarnerMedia Entertainment, led by Bob Greenblatt. CNN, HLN, Turner Sports and other entities fall under WarnerMedia News & Sports, reporting to Jeff Zucker. Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Boomerang are part of a new Global Kids & Young Adults business under Kevin Tsujihara, who will also add oversight of Turner Classic Movies.
Moreover, Turner’s massive international operation will no longer be a stand-alone entity. Having been run by Gerhard Zeiler, Turner Broadcasting System Intl. was a 3,800-person division that operated better than 130 channels in more than 30 languages in about 200 countries — including localized versions of TNT, Cartoon Network and TCM. But now Zeiler has been appointed WarnerMedia chief revenue officer, heading a new WarnerMedia Affiliates and Advertising Sales Group.
That’s what’s known so far. The division heads are meeting with their direct reports now, and whether that results in any changes in the management structure at the individual channels will be known in the coming weeks.
The other key unknown, as whenever corporations streamline operations, is the extent of the resultant layoffs. But several insiders from the Company Formerly Known as Turner tell Variety that they aren’t anticipating a mass cutback — especially since, as part of “Turner 2020,” the firm already went through a major downsizing a few years ago. Instead, there’s the possibility that a buyout program similar to the one recently offered for longtime HBO employees might be expanded companywide.
“I don’t think anybody has been told immediately the first thing you have to do is figure out how to get rid of 500 or 600 employees,” an insider says. “You’ll see some places surgically where there might be some duplication or might see some employees redeployed to try something different.”
Another shock to the corporate system, especially for longtime Turner employees in Atlanta, may be the sudden loss of the brand as they knew it. Maverick owner Ted Turner famously hit it big by sticking his small UHF TV station on a satellite and turning it into the nation’s first “superstation.” He was first mocked and then heralded for the idea of launching 24-hour news network CNN. Other gambles that soon paid off included Cartoon Network and TNT.
“Ted Turner’s presence looms large,” says one exec. “There are a lot of people there who worked with Ted. He’s still very much revered. I don’t think Atlanta is going away; we’ve been told the company will continue to operate in New York, Atlanta and L.A. But I think it’s inevitable there will be some changes with the new alignment.”
Indeed, it would be nearly impossible to leave Atlanta, as the networks’ technical operations are all based there. “It’s pretty substantial investment this company has made in Atlanta over the course of however long we’ve been down there,” an insider says.
The Atlanta staffers will all be united in the fact that they work for WarnerMedia, but they’ll have to get used to the idea that they’re not under one Turner umbrella anymore.
One source says the WarnerMedia brass is aware of how jarring the changes may be to employees, adding, “They’re trying to be very sensitive about that because they know culturally that is meaningful, especially for the people based in Atlanta.
“There is an effort underway to identify the cultural elements from the prior brands that are essential to the business, and talk about ways to ensure that they continue in the new company — what’s meaningful and how to preserve it, and what elements the new culture needs to thrive,” the exec says. “It’s a topic being discussed a lot.”