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Kempner: Turner CEO gathers intel on you; Promises ‘personalized’ TV

He’s a bit profane, adores Taco Bell and runs one of the biggest cable TV empires in the nation.

Oh, and John Martin, Turner’s first-ever New York-based CEO, thinks there are too many television networks and a a bunch of “s****y” ones should die. Just not any of his.

Which is probably a good thing for Atlanta, since a big chunk of Turner’s operations are here, from CNN to Cartoon Network, TBS and TNT.

Having way fewer TV networks should lower viewers’ monthly pay TV bills, he said. But that isn’t the most interesting — and, for some, unsettling — prediction Martin has for how TV will change over the next five to 10 years.

For example, he told me Turner will “sniff” out our digital footprints through our home connections and routers to know way more about who is flopped in front of each TV and what they are watching online and on the boob tube at any given time.

“The more devices you have in your home will enable us and enable others to know more about your habits,” he said. “That router is collecting an awful lot of data as to what sites you are going, what advertisements you are more prone to, where you are spending time.”

Others in the TV industry also are hunting for data on viewers. And there has long been a push to direct commercials to specific homes.

But Martin predicts a future in which a network like TNT will simultaneously queue up different programs for different viewers in the same home, like an NBA game when it knows I’m watching and a drama when it recognizes my wife is watching in another room. On the same TV network.

Weird, right? But maybe appealing if you like businesses doing more work for you.

“We are talking about the early stages of personalized linear TV, which has never been thought of before, has never been done before,” Martin said.

It sounds a little like Netflix, where you select which person is watching, and then Netflix offers up viewing suggestions based on what you’ve watched in the past. Except it sounds like Turner intends to figure out who we are on its own.

Still Turner, and maybe other TV networks, seem behind on their intel on specific viewers.

Two and a half years ago, “we knew nothing” about them, Martin said. Now Turner is gathering up data from third-party aggregators, its own digital sites and others.

Data, algorithms and targeting are the latest currency for drumming up business.

But Facebook, Google and other digital players capitalized on this long ago.

Who hasn’t bought or searched something online and then seen an ad for the item follow them around the web like a not-so-cute puppy?

If you care about privacy, this is where you might get fidgety.

“It’s a little bit unnerving to me, I have to say, as a human being,” Martin volunteered.


Martin corrected himself: “I say it’s ‘unnevering.’ It’s more ‘miraculous.’”

This is where he might get assistance if AT&T can complete its deal to buy Turner and parent Time Warner.

AT&T has 130 million mobile subscribers, Martin said. “The data they are going to have on the customer base is going to be a big help to us.”

By the way, what Martin envisions about making different TV programs available simultaneously in the same home on the same network is possible, thanks to recent tech changes, said David Grubb, the chief technology officer for video services at Georgia-based ARRIS, one of the biggest set-top box makers in the nation. But fully enabling such a system would require participation from cable TV providers and upgrades by TV networks.

Of course, by the time Turner can put such a system in place, consumer expectations might outrun those advances, said Derek Baine of SNL Kagan, a media industry research firm.

Still, he told me, “I like the idea.”

Baine also generally agrees with Martin’s thoughts about a glut of TV networks. Among those he said are most likely to eventually be chopped by cable providers: weaker music channels and networks that heavily rely on re-runs.

Martin told me, “If you don’t have a top 60 network in the U.S., it basically is irrelevant. It’s worth nothing.”

What wouldn't make that cut?

Here are some I found that might not fall among the 60 most-viewed broadcast and cable channels by one count: The Weather Channel (which is based in Atlanta ... Please, don't kill it), Oxygen, BBC America, MTV2, Fox Business, Golf Channel, DIY Network, ESPNU, Discovery Family Channel, MTV Classic. 

Turner has some of the top networks on cable, including three in the top 10 and eight in the top 50. But three of its other U.S. networks — CNN International, CNN en Español and Boomerang (a cartoon outlet) — may not make the top 60.

So will Martin cut some of his own?

“Not right now,” he told me.

It’s tough to be tough.

Other changes are coming, he predicted. Much of it sounds like ways Turner hopes to respond to challenging shifts in the industry.

As more viewers embrace binge watching, Martin is banking on Turner finding ways to turn that into a service that it can offer directly. And as consumers use DVRs to skip commercials, Martin said he expects to further reduce the number of traditional spots and instead create other options, such as ads briefly running along one edge of the TV screen during shows or adding more advertising messages embedded in the actual content of programs. In other words, making some advertising skip-proof.

The changes might go over splendidly. But they’ll rely on buy-in from advertisers and viewers.

TV watchers won’t like the new advertising if it’s too distracting, said Bruce Leichtman of Leichtman Research Group. And personalizing TV risks being creepy.

“If people feel like you are playing Big Brother on them, that could be a challenge,” he said.

I suspect, though, that many people have given up on that privacy stuff, especially if it gets them something they want, like just the right TV show.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that four Turner networks may not be among the 60 most-watched TV networks.

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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