Steve Koonin Out at Turner

Programmer joins the Atlanta Hawks as CEO, minority owner

After a 14-year stint with Turner Entertainment Networks, where he most recently served as the division’s president, Steve Koonin is leaving the cable programming giant to assume the role of CEO of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks franchise.

In his new position, Koonin will oversee all business, financial and strategic operations of the Hawks and Philips Arena. He will also acquire a minority stake within the Hawks’ ownership group.

Koonin has worked closely with the NBA for 28 years, a span that includes his tenure at Turner and as Coca-Cola’s vice president of sports and entertainment marketing.

In a note to Turner staffers, the notoriously sports-happy Koonin said he approached the opportunity to run the Hawks as “the chance to be a steward of another Ted Turner legacy,” adding that “The Hawks came to life when Ted took over the team in the ‘70s. Over time and under Ted’s leadership, the Hawks were the class of the Atlanta sports scene. I am hoping that we can reignite that spark and help the Hawks bring an NBA Championship to our hometown of Atlanta. I keep telling myself that I am not leaving Turner, but rather I have chosen a transfer to another division.”

Koonin has been the architect of Turner’s scripted programming initiative, developing such hits as The Closer, Falling Skies, Rizzoli & Isles, Saving Grace, Major Crimes and the criminally underwatched Men of a Certain Age for TNT. Comedy has been a tougher nut to crack, although Koonin did execute a coup in 2010 after luring Conan O’Brien to TBS.

While his position demanded a lot of long-tail thinking, Koonin also is clearly an executive who can think on his feet. He demonstrated that publicly during Turner’s 2011 upfront presentation, when a power surge at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom had media buyers heading for the exits. Before he could lose this very valuable audience, Koonin cobbled together a stand-up routine that put George Lopez’s later efforts to shame.

“My name is Steve Koonin, formerly of Turner Broadcasting,” he said, drawing an appreciative roar from the crowd of buyers. “By the way, our pricing is not changing because of this,” he added, saying that Turner’s expenses were unlikely to decrease as a result of the snafu, “if you know what I mean.”

In the end, Koonin and the rest of the Turner brain trust seemed stricken. They needn’t have been. That sort of grace-under-pressure performance turned a possible disaster into the talk of the upfront. (A month after Koonin saved the day, Turner would go on to write CPM increases of 13 percent.)

As a Coca-Cola marketing guru, Koonin famously plotted to use colored lasers to project the brand’s iconic logo onto the surface of the moon to usher in the millennium on Jan. 1, 2000.

(Long story short-ish, the Federal Aviation Administration put the kibosh on the idea, citing concerns about possible interference with aircraft. As Koonin told Mediaweek back in 2007, “They weren't particularly enthused about the prospect of our cutting flying airplanes in half, but it would have worked. We had a scientist work out all the math.”)

With typical aplomb, Koonin signed off by noting that he was grateful that “my iPad is waterproof,” before going on to thank everyone who has worked with him “day in and day out for the past 5,156 days.” He closed out his memo to staffers with the chorus of Green Day’s 1997 hit, “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)”:

“It’s something unpredictable

But in the end it’s right

I hope you had the time of your life…”

The reference is another fitting flourish. Along with being a sports nut, Koonin is a diehard music fan. Mere weeks after its formation, R.E.M. played a party at Koonin’s fraternity house on the campus of the University of Georgia.

Turner Broadcasting System president David Levy followed up with a memo of his own. “I imagine your feelings on his decision are like mine: mixed,” Levy wrote. “On one hand, I’ll miss Steve’s vision, creativity and leadership at TNT, TBS, truTV and Turner Classic Movies. Their success is a direct result of his professional and personal investment. I know that many of you would use those same words to describe his influence on you and your work. There’s no better tribute than that.”

The search for Koonin’s replacement, “including an internal and external search, begins immediately,” Levy added. 

Levy and Koonin were selected to fill the No. 1 spot on the 2010 Mediaweek 50 list.

Koonin’s departure comes just weeks after Turner announced that veteran CNN ad sales chief Greg D’Alba and Turner Animation head Stu Snyder would be leaving the company. Perhaps more importantly, Koonin exits exactly one month before Turner is set to present its 2014-15 upfront slate.

The Hawks on Saturday clinched the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs with a win over the Miami Heat, thereby eliminating the New York Knicks from contention. The franchise has advanced to the NBA Playoffs in each of the last seven seasons, the longest streak in the East, although that string of successes hasn’t translated to additional fannies in the seats at Philips Arena. (The Hawks finished the 2013-14 regular season ranked 28th in attendance.)