As the media recession slowly subsides, or, depending on who you talk to, rests on pause, CEOs, owners and directors who have seen their companies come though the wilderness obviously are beholden to the people who help lead the way out.
Mediaweek 50, AdweekMedia’s annual compilation of these “indispensables,” focuses on individuals that advanced innovation, revenue and influence for their companies, often under a ton of pressure. Many on this list—compiled, debated and packaged by Mediaweek’s editors Jim Cooper, Anthony Crupi, Mike Shields, Lucia Moses, Katy Bachman, Marc Berman, Alan Frutkin and Adweek network TV and media agency editor Steve McClellan—are new, running breakout businesses like Twitter and Huffington Post that were the stuff of fervent whispers and rushed signatures on NDAs just a few years ago.
The list is increasingly focused on digital innovators as companies such as Condé Nast and traditional media agencies advance themselves by transitioning to an online and mobile reality. On the other hand the list is also TV heavy, reflecting the medium’s resurgence in both the upfront and scatter market. Cable is especially ascendant, with momentum that is embodied by the dynamic duo of Turner’s David Levy and Steven Koonin in the No. 1 slot.
They reached that perch by convincing Conan O’Brien to make his new late-night home on cable, playing big in sports with a groundbreaking pact with CBS on NCAA hoops and nearing pricing parity with broadcasters in this year’s upfront. —Editors
For a two-part, introductory Mediaweek 50 video click below:
Here’s the 2010 Mediaweek 50 list:
1. David Levy: president, sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting; and Steve Koonin: president, Turner Entertainment Networks
Conan O’Brien looks like a guy who’s lived out every road cliché in the American metal songbook. The day is heaving itself toward noon and the talk-show host is leaning his Giacometti frame against a wall near the foot of the staircase at New York’s Del Posto restaurant. As he begins chatting to a scrum of reporters, O’Brien looks at once world-weary and ebullient.
It turns out he’s humming along on about two hours of sleep, having flown in to New York in the midst of a 32-city comedy tour. O’Brien had assured Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin that he would kick off the company’s upfront presentation, and while he continues in the same arch and goofy vein that informed his routine earlier in the morning, the snappy patter accordions in on itself once he’s asked about his split with NBC.
“I want to move on,” he says, brushing the question aside. “I really just want to be funny on television. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
Koonin is more than happy to help O’Brien move on, ushering him away from the huddle of outstretched tape recorders and spiral notepads. The juxtaposition of the comedian, who stands 6’ 4” in his stocking feet, and Koonin, who most assuredly does not, is mildly funny in and of itself. When Koonin returns, he’s beaming.
“If you had told me five years ago that we’d be working with Conan and Andre [Braugher] and Kyra Sedgwick, I would have asked you to submit to a drug test,” he says.
A few months later, after David Levy, president of sales, distribution and sports, Turner Broadcasting, has wrapped the group’s most lucrative upfront in its history, Koonin still sounds like he can’t quite get his head around his own good fortune. “It’s almost surreal: In 60 days [on Nov. 8], Conan launches on TBS. The network has never had that one definitive element, that defining personality. Conan is the absolute epitome of smart, funny TV, and for us to be in cahoots with him is a terrific accomplishment.”
Landing O’Brien was no mean feat. This spring, while the former Tonight Show host was in serious talks with Fox, Turner programming chief Michael Wright pitched an 11 p.m. TBS show to O’Brien’s manager. When Team Coco voiced its concerns about George Lopez getting shoved out of the time slot (much the same circumstances had aggrieved O’Brien while NBC attempted to mop up its Leno mess), Koonin flew in to Los Angeles to give the comic his personal assurances that Lopez was willing to do whatever it took to accommodate TBS’ new star.
Talks proceeded so expeditiously that the story did not have time to leak out through the usual media channels. In fact, once Turner announced the hire, Levy was immediately deluged with queries from clients looking to get in on the fun. “I was like, ‘You guys, we haven’t even settled on a date.’” Levy recalls. “That there was already so much interest in Conan as a person and as a comedy brand, I just knew that the demand for ad time was going to be off-the-charts huge.”
In addition to setting the stage for what could be the start of another cable heist––late-night may be the next block to get whisked away from the base of broadcast’s Jenga tower, joining news, kids and, in large part, sports––for Levy, the Conan deal marks a turning point for the ad sales market.
“This is the first program on ad-supported cable to get broadcast CPMs,” he says. In securing CPMs in Letterman and Leno territory, Levy won the first victory in his ongoing battle to repeal what he calls TV’s legacy tax. “We’re still not at a parity with all our original series, but we’re getting closer all the time,” Levy says. “Conan’s the proof we have when we say you can’t just throw all this stuff in a separate cable bucket. That’s just not going to work anymore.’”
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament is another ostrich feather in Turner’s cap. When CBS looked to shore up its stewardship of March Madness, the broadcaster saw that it could use some help carrying the load. In a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal, CBS and Turner agreed to share the rights to the tourney, which will bring the National Championship game to cable for the first time in 2016.
Not surprisingly, Levy is commanding broadcast bucks for NCAA games on TNT, TBS and truTV. “We’re not selling our time any differently than CBS,” Levy says. “The CPMs for the tournament will be uniform across all four networks.”
Conan’s not the only story to tell about Turner, but he certainly is the sexiest, even if his capricious red beard puts one in mind of a Boston-Irish Unabomber. But money’s pretty damn sexy too, and the Koonin-Levy battery is nothing if not a hypercaffeinated ATM that spits out twenties embossed with Angie Harmon’s picture.
Per Time Warner’s most recent earnings, the Turner nets tallied up $1 billion in ad sales in the second quarter, an improvement of 14 percent over the year-ago $876 million. During the summer bazaar, Levy locked in CPM increases of 9-10 percent above last year’s upfront, on the way to pumping up overall dollar volume by 20 percent.
As long as ad sales and affiliate revenue continue to climb, parent company Time Warner will have the checkbook at the ready. “Increased investment in originals is a key element in our strategy,” says chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes, adding that the greater the selection of original programs that hit Turner’s air, the greater the potential profits.
In July, the net launched the highest-rated new cable series of the summer, Harmon’s Rizzoli & Isles, and as the sun sets on the hot season, TNT and TBS are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 among the crucial 18-49 demo.