Time Warner Inc. is overhauling the leadership at its Turner Broadcasting unit.
Phil Kent, the longtime chief executive officer of Turner Broadcasting will give up that title in 2014, and John Martin, currently chief financial officer of Time Warner, will take over. Kent will stay on as chairman until his contract is up at the end of next year.
There had been rumblings for several months that the move was in the works, but Time Warner had repeatedly denied that was the case.
The low-key Kent has spent more than 20 years at Turner, and it was no secret that he was likely to leave when his current deal ended. As head of Turner, Kent has overseen one of Time Warner’s most important units and key revenue generators. Turner Broadcasting is the parent of cable channels TNT, TBS, CNN, HLN, Cartoon Network and TruTV.
Prior to running all of Turner, Kent had stints as president of CNN News Group and head of Turner’s international operations. He joined Turner in 1993 from Creative Artists Agency, where he was a television agent.
Though it has mostly been smooth sailing for Kent at Turner, there have been a few bumps in the road lately, most notably at CNN, which has struggled in the past decade against Fox News and, more recently, MSNBC. Kent was seen as resistant to making a leadership change at the top of CNN, out of loyalty to its longtime head, Jim Walton.
As ratings continued to slide last year and pressure grew from Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes to make a change, Walton finally resigned saying that CNN “needs new thinking.” Former NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker was brought in to replace Walton, a move seen as being favored by Bewkes.
Although TBS and TNT have big audiences, they also have large programming bills because of the heavy load of expensive sports content on each network. Bewkes has made no secret of his desire to increase the fees that TBS and TNT get from cable and satellite distributors.
But Turner may meet resistance from distributors that are growing tired of footing the bill for sports programming that a majority of viewers dont’ watch.
A Time Warner veteran, Martin will still likely be viewed as an outsider by Turner, which is based in Atlanta and has its own distinct culture that sometimes resists change. The last time Time Warner brought in an outsider to run Turner was in 2001 when Jamie Kellner, who had headed the now-defunct WB Network, was named head of the unit.
Kellner clashed with many Turner executives, and his efforts to make the company work more closely with Warner Bros. backfired. Kellner left in 2003, and Kent replaced him.
Martin may take a more hands-on approach at Turner than Kent, who was known for giving his team room to roam and for serving as a buffer zone between Atlanta and Time Warner’s New York headquarters. That said, Martin will remain primarily based in New York.
By moving Martin from an administrative role to an operational post, Bewkes has one of his own heading the unit. Time Warner may also be grooming Martin to eventually succeed the 61-year-old Bewkes, who signed a new five-year contract last year.
A successor to Martin is to be named in the coming weeks.