Kempner: Turner, CNN face another round of uncertainty

6:53 p.m Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 Business
Hyosub Shin
CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Reports that AT&T wants to buy Time Warner must scramble the already jangled nerves of thousands of employees at CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network and Time Warner’s other Turner operations in Atlanta.

They have to be worrying about the potential for job cuts.

But I suppose they also should be feeling kind of proud.

Despite decades of contortions in the media and entertainment business and a fire hose of competition online and on air, what they produce is still lucrative and in demand. A behemoth like AT&T apparently has the hots for them.

That’s pretty impressive, given that Ted Turner launched CNN 36 years ago (which is like 279 in media industry years).

The saying goes that “Content is King.” We’ll see.

AT&T is in “advanced” talks to buy Turner parent Time Warner, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited unnamed sources familiar with the deal. Even if the companies strike a deal, other bidders could make offers or regulators could withhold approval.

Time Warner shareholders already got a big bump in stock prices based on the reports.

But it’s not yet clear why buying Time Warner would be crucial for AT&T or how it would make the Turner businesses significantly more powerful.

Industry folks keep changing their minds about whether content (like TV networks, studios and other outlets) should be bundled into the same ownership as delivery systems (like cable providers, satellite and phone companies).

Sometimes the answer depends on the latest Wall Street tabulations and stock price expectations rather than, you know, what might actually be best for building and operating consumer brands long term.

A few years back, Time Warner decided to spin off its pipeline (cable provider Time Warner Cable).

Now, AT&T, which has acquired DirecTV, apparently thinks the pipeline/content combo is a grand idea.

Of course, all this could have a big impact in Atlanta.

Turner accounted for 60 percent of Time Warner’s operating income last year and about one-third of its revenue.

Turner has downtown and Midtown complexes with 2.45 million square feet. It has thousands of local employees even after slicing nearly 1,000 local jobs in 2014 and shifting many of its top leadership posts to New York and Los Angeles.

Those cuts followed a decision by Time Warner to shore up its finances after turning down a buyout bid by 21st Century Fox and its dominant shareholder, Rupert Murdoch.

Had the two combined, Turner might have faced even deeper cuts given the overlap in the companies’ businesses. Both operate TV networks (21st Century has Fox, National Geographic and CNN’s arch rival Fox News).

Maybe a deal with AT&T would be less wrenching for Turner employees in Atlanta.

I doubt local job cuts could be ruled out (especially given the heavy debt AT&T could face). But the businesses might not have as much overlap as other potential suitors for Time Warner.

There’s a lot still to be sorted out.

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