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.
Koonin, who is perhaps nearly as competitive as Levy (who is roughly as combative as, say, Kobe Bryant), can’t resist cracking wise when he talks about his competition.
“Honestly, I only hope the same people who are running the broadcast networks today can stay in their jobs for the next 10 years,” he jokes. “I’ll be bloody rich.” —Anthony Crupi
2. Steve Burke: COO, Comcast Corp. and president of Comcast Cable
The ultimate executive behind the executive, Burke, under the watchful eye of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, has the singularly complicated and groundbreaking task of marrying both the businesses and cultures of the Philadelphia-based cable giant and the far-flung content assets of NBC Univeral. The task falls to an unflappable family man who has been the steadfast captain of Comcast’s rapid expansion; in the past decade, annual revenue has increased sixfold to $35.8 billion.
It’s unclear exactly what role Burke, often seen these days at 30 Rock, might play in the merged company. The flagship net has endured a bumpy ride of late and the NBC affiliate group, like all TV-station holdings, weathered a dire stretch during the recession. While his boss has pledged loyalty to the TV-station business, it’ll be up to Burke to make it work.
In the positive column, Comcast, as a distributor, gets an unprecedented content suite to add to its other entertainment and sports holdings. The dual revenue stream of advertising and sub fees, both at huge scale, will keep the lights on in Philly, New York and L.A. for a long while.
Lampooned by Tina Fey in NBC’s 30 Rock—“It’s Kabletown, with a ‘K.’”—Comcast should make for a sober, steady counterpoint to the GE culture the series so deliciously skewers. 2009 RANK: New
3. Sheryl Sandberg: COO, Facebook
As Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg has sway over everything from business and product development to advertising. After several years of fielding the question ‘Can social networking sites actually cash in on all their traffic?’ Facebook’s ad outlook has brightened considerably—due in large part to Sandberg’s influence.
Per eMarketer, the site should pull in $1.2 billion in ad revenue this year. Zuckerberg and Sandberg have smartly resisted plastering the site with massive takeover ads or banners. Instead, they’ve pushed the concept of engagement, encouraging advertisers to take advantage of the site’s organic, sharing nature.
Besides the ad turnaround, Facebook membership recently eclipsed a staggering 500 million globally. At the same time, Facebook’s Web footprint has continued to balloon. The site’s Facebook Connect product is fast becoming a universal log-in platform for the Web, having been integrated on properties including NYTimes.com, The Huffington Post and TVGuide.com.
And now the company is going after location-based platforms like Foursquare with the launch of Facebook Places, which allows users to alert their friends of their whereabouts as they check in to various locations. As a result, many observers anticipate a boom of local ads on the site. 2009 RANK: 8
4. Arianna Huffington: editor in chief, HuffingtonPost.com
A recent article in The New York Times discussed how several newspapers are starting to use traffic patterns to help guide their news coverage. Imagine that! A publisher analyzing what people are actually reading on their site, and responding accordingly.
Huffington Post, the self-named Internet newspaper, has been doing that for years. The site constantly analyzes what stories and headlines readers are responding to, and isn’t afraid to shift gears in the course of a day.
Thinking like that has made HuffPo revolutionary in online media and Huffington herself something of a visionary. Launched in 2005 as a mostly left-leaning political blog forum, Huffington Post now covers everything from sports to style to religion and the arts. The site reached 24.4 million unique users in August (comScore) while generating a staggering 3.4 million comments during the same month. By year’s end, it should pull in $30 million in revenue. Meanwhile, Huffington continues to pen best-selling books, make regular appearances on shows like MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and contribute frequently to HuffPo.