Reviewing AT&T’s Reorganization of WarnerMedia
What do these changes tell us about the future of the new company?
Late last week, news broke that Richard Plepler and David Levy, the heads of HBO and Turner respectively, were both resigning. The fact that this news came just days after the Justice Department’s case against the merger of AT&T and Time Warner was finally terminated was not lost on even casual observers. AT&T could definitively say it had control over its new properties, and it was ready to exert that control. If you subscribe to the theory that Plepler and Levy were given a choice, this meant they must either fall in line or fall away. I think it likely naïve to believe they had much choice, or any real sense of one, anyway.
And so with their departure there were a slew of other announcements. John Stankey, already announced as the lead the newly formed WarnerMedia, would have three notable deputies under him. Here is a breakdown of the four men in question.
The Boss: John Stankey
John Stankey has been thrust into the limelight in the months since his appointment to lead WarnerMedia, and from the way he’s acted one might draw the conclusion that he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. He made ominous comments at a Town Hall event with HBO employees last summer that raised some eyebrows. Hindsight is 20/20, but that was probably the point when we should have known this executive shuffle was assuredly coming down the pike.
That event aside, Stankey does usually say the right things. HBO will remain the home for the tip top of prestige TV. He won’t be gutting Turner. These moves aren’t about cost cutting and layoffs. We still care about the art. It’s perhaps the fact that he says all the right things that makes all his new employees nervous, particularly as he swiftly shifts around their upper management. Of course, this is often to be expected with enormous acquisitions, and it’s quite possible Stankey will prove to be a brilliant businessman.
The New Guy: Robert Greenblatt
Of course I don’t mean to suggest that Richard Greenblatt is new to the industry, in fact his resume is impeccable, including hits as old and unique as The X-Files and as new and mainstream as This Is Us. Greenblatt is only new in the sense that he hasn’t worked at AT&T or Time Warner. He’s been brought in to run HBO, Turner’s premier networks, and lead the direct-to-consumer streaming service the organization is planning to launch.
This is quite the job, but Greenblatt is quite the professional. He was able to obtain this crucial and expansive role due not only to his great successes, but also to his 30-year long friendship with Peter Chernin, a man who is also friends with John Stankey. I’ve always said “your network is your net worth”, and this is of course just another example of one of my famous sayings coming to fruition once again. It’s also notable that many journalists felt the need to write the phrase “Robert Greenblatt, who goes by Bob”, which is just *Italian chef kissing fingers* incredibly on brand for journalists.
The Can’t Miss Kid: Jeff Zucker
Streaming is thriving and live TV is dying. Unless, of course, you’re airing a can’t miss event. Jeff Zucker has brought CNN a great deal of respect and ratings, all while drawing ire from one of America’s most prolific cable viewers. You know, the 72-year old man who lives here. Adding sports to Zucker’s profile actually makes a great deal of sense, given his ability to make the news exciting. The addition of sports also means Zucker will now lead Bleacher Report, which is a fascinating company that provides a model for digital sports media properties like The Ringer, SB Nation, and The Athletic.
The only part of this move that I find upsetting is the fact that politics and sports, once again, find themselves looking into the mirror and seeing each other. Unfortunate for our world, but a convenient professional development opportunity for Jeff Zucker.
The Movie and Cartoon Mogul: Kevin Tsujihara
Kevin Tsujihara has been running Warner Brothers for a while, and will continue in that role with some added responsibilities. He’ll handle WarnerMedia’s studio, animation, Cartoon Network (and Adult Swim), and also…uh…Turner Classic Movies? Initially, this seemed a bit thrown together, but I suppose that last part makes sense given that he also runs the movie studio, and housing youth programming with the DC Universe’s intellectual property could work out well.
In fact, the piece of the pie under Tsujihara that has the most potential is likely the DC Universe, which has underperformed in a truly remarkable way thus far. People are out here going to see Ant Man 2, and there has yet to be a modern Superman movie that anyone really wants to watch. With the knowledge that they’ll soon have a streaming service to populate, perhaps they’ll turn it around. I should also note that some news broke this week about Tsujihara and has cast a bit of doubt on his future. It would be wise to stay tuned to see how that develops.
Why all this realignment?
The most obvious answer is often the right one, and that’s the case here. John Stankey is trying to optimize his organization’s ability to launch and maintain a successful streaming service. Greenblatt is in charge of almost all of WarnerMedia’s premium content. HBO, TNT, TBS, and the DTC service that will deliver it to you for just $5 — $20/month some restrictions may apply, it’s all cheaper if you bundle. Zucker is going to handle the content you just can’t afford to time-shift. Tsujihara will manage the studio and create synergies between youth content and the movies Warner creates. It all makes a great deal of sense in the new media reality.
With minor exceptions, it would be difficult to argue this isn’t a sensible way to put together an org chart. While it’s frightening to think that Plepler and Levy both felt the need to pack their bags, it’d be hard to find a replacement with more success and potential than Greenblatt. Zucker has delivered in a wild environment without being the network of the Left or the Right. Tsujihara has a great deal to work with, and new platforms on which he can drop content.
And it’s not all departures and heavy-handed ominous music in the stylings of True Detective. HBO’s President of Programming, Casey Bloys, has opted to stay at the company and is revered by creators in the same way Plepler has been. Game of Thrones is coming, and the prequel is in development. Friends is one of Netflix’s most watched properties, and it’s almost certainly headed to AT&T’s streaming service. At the risk of repeating myself far too much, there is so much opportunity in the DC Universe.
This is a huge moment for AT&T. They need this acquisition to deliver. Whether or not they elect to create synergies through massive layoffs matters, but how the remaining rank and file feel about their parent company matters as well. If the folks going into work every day don’t feel a greater partnership and responsibility to their parent organization, there will be trouble.
Their upper management is set and aligned, now they need only do the same for the rest of the company.
I drew the above information from the works below. These are some of the best pieces on what’s happening and what it means, if you have time I’d encourage you give them a read.
AT&T Breaks Up Turner, Bulks Up Warner Bros. in Major WarnerMedia Overhaul
Probably the best breakdown of the whole thing from a business perspective, this also includes the most enticing quote I’ve seen: “A Broadway aficionado, Mr. Greenblatt also brought live musicals back to television with ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘The Wiz’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ He says he has no similar plans in his new job but joked that a ‘Game of Thrones’ musical is ‘something I could get behind.’”
Let’s hope that every joke has a little bit of truth to it!
New HBO Boss Excelled at Broadcast TV. Will He Succeed in Cable’s Next Era?
This reads like a best of list for Greenblatt who’s been a part of *takes breath* The X-Files, Six Feet Under, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, Dexter, This is Us, and The Voice.
Byers Market from March 5th, 2019
Dylan Byers got some of the best quotes out of Greenblatt including:
“Netflix doesn’t have a brand. It’s just a place you go to get anything — it’s like Encyclopedia Britannica. That’s a great business model when you’re trying to reach as many people on the planet as you can.”
“This is a company that really wants this media company to grow and prosper. Maybe they want to do it a little more efficiently…but they’re not saying let’s undo HBO.”
Two quick thoughts:
- Most publications only ran the first part of that Netflix quote, which made it seem far more insulting than it was. But it was a little insulting.
- AT&T execs continue to insist they won’t be interfering with HBO. AT&T doth protest too much, methinks.
WarnerMedia Content Chief Says Competitors ‘Are Eating Our Lunch’
A look into a Town Hall that Stankey and Greenblatt hosted on Wednesday, with more insights into the new efforts and realignment.
At an HBO Premiere Party, the C.E.O.’s Seat Was Empty
A bit of a look into the other side of the story, and how some of HBO’s collaborators are reacting to the changes.
“THE AT&T GUYS, AT THE END OF THE DAY, ARE BEAN COUNTERS”: WITH PLEPLER OUT OF HBO, WALL STREET SCRUTINIZES THE LOGIC OF AT&T’S MONSTER REORG
The headline isn’t very subtle, and the rest of the piece follows its lead. Some of these folks are pretty upset about these changes, and skeptical about the future of a group they hold dear. Writer William Cohan seems a little bitter, and I suspect he might be utilizing Wall Street’s skepticism to voice his own.