Commentary

Turner Is Gone With The Wind In AT&T Restructuring

The sudden evaporation of a company that was known simply as Turner as recently as Monday provides a prime example of one of those lessons we learn repeatedly in life.

Song lyrics by Joni Mitchell: You don’t know what you've got ’til it's gone. And just like that, a legacy TV company is gone with the wind.

The news came our way via The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday morning. “The unit once known as Turner -- which included TNT, TBS, CNN and the Cartoon Network -- was essentially dissolved,” the story said.

The story reported on the restructuring of the old Time Warner now that AT&T is officially the company's new owner. The story reported that former NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt had been named as the head of all content to be developed and produced for the various platforms of the new WarnerMedia.

According to the story, the restructuring effectively reins in (or possibly does away with entirely) the autonomy under which Time Warner's three principal businesses once operated -- HBO, Turner (consisting basically of all of the company's basic cable properties, including networks and Turner Sports) and Warner Bros., the production studio.

This is the restructuring that apparently led long-time HBO and Turner chiefs Richard Plepler and David Levy (respectively) to resign late last week.

In the WSJ story, various reasons were given for the restructuring, including cost-cutting in areas where jobs and their various responsibilities overlap, or are redundant. But overall, the restructuring seems to reflect AT&T's point of view that the way this company's various content companies were run was outmoded and somehow not in sync with the modern media world. And maybe they weren't.

But it was fun while it lasted. As a TV critic, I certainly took various shots at the programs of HBO and the Turner networks over the years. But for the most part, these units were made up of very creative, driven and outgoing people. No doubt they still are populated by such people, since many of these same people remain in place -- at least for now.

But for how long will these teams remain? What will be the effect on the creative process of this new structure? Creativity and the peculiar alchemy involved in bringing it about is not something that can be easily structured into existence.

In fact, some might argue that the creative process yields the best results in environments that are not strictly structured. This might be why HBO was so successful over the years. They did their own thing, created a portfolio of shows that were uniquely theirs, and then did it again and again.

The challenge Time Warner's owners seem to feel they are facing most is, at least in part, the one posed by Netflix and the huge amounts of money the streaming giant invests in original content.

In a way, Netflix seems to have accomplished the impossible -- producing content in quantity that nevertheless retains a high degree of quality (either real or at the very least perceived that way by its millions of adherents).

Already, HBO has been producing more originals at any one time than it used to. The success of Netflix notwithstanding, throughout the history of television, quantity has rarely been brought into alignment with quality. Of all the units AT&T just took over, HBO might have the best potential for becoming AT&T's Netflix.

As for the basic cable networks of what used to be known as Turner, the business of ad-supported television will miss David Levy at the Turner upfront this spring -- if there is to be a Turner upfront.

Basic cable itself is looking more and more like a legacy medium that is much too dependent on a single delivery system -- cable television -- that is quickly becoming outmoded itself -- and more to the point, unpopular (and thought to be unnecessary) to a new generation of young adults.

Once upon a time, it seemed as if basic cable would one day put broadcast television out of business. Now it looks like the broadcast networks will outlast the basic cable networks. Whatever happens, AT&T is now positioned to become one of the world's leaders in content creation and production. Who saw that coming?

1 comment about "Turner Is Gone With The Wind In AT&T Restructuring".
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  1. Eric Fischer from HJA Strategic Consulting, March 6, 2019 at 12:39 p.m.

    A great brand now gone.  What a shame.  Today's and future generations will only read about Ted Turner in books and articles.  I'm fortunate to know the stories of the first days of cable.  Fortunate to have bought from guys like Bruce Lefkowtiz, Michael Brochstein, Tom Cavallaro, Lou LaTorre, Doug Rohrer and Chris Manning.  Fortunate to have learned how to sell from folks like Kevin Murphy and Mark Gall.  Fortunate to have been a partner with Jon Diament and Will Funk.  There are many others not mentioned, but the Turner crew helped me forge a good part of my perception and knowledge of the industry.  I'm sure my story is no different from countless others.  Today, take a moment to reflect on the "good times" had and the legacy that was forged  Given what they've done with DirecTV, sad to think what's to come.

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