Atlanta’s Turner operations face uncertainty as name disappears

AT&T said Monday it will divide up Atlanta-born Turner, which has thousands of local employees, shifting the media operations into three other units as the telecommunications giant accelerates its integration of Time Warner.

AT&T declined to comment on how many job cuts may be in store for its metro Atlanta holdings, beyond saying that local operations “will continue to exist.”

One victim is already known: The Turner brand will be phased out and be absorbed into WarnerMedia. The Turner name had been on the billboard company Ted Turner took over from his father in the 1960s and eventually built into an Atlanta-based empire that revolutionized TV, helped build the cable industry and, through the founding of CNN, spread the concept of 24-hour news.

“I hate to lose that brand here,” said A.J. Robinson, the president of downtown business organization Central Atlanta Progress. “That is kind of sad really. It was probably inevitable really since he [Ted Turner] exited the stage that it would happen one day.”

Turner’s swashbuckling control of the company slipped away years ago after the business became part of New York-based Time Warner and went through other corporate gyrations, including the deeply troubled combination with AOL. In recent years a number of senior Turner executive positions shifted to the Big Apple and Los Angeles.

But several thousand Turner employees remain in Atlanta centered mostly at CNN Center and the Techwood campus in Midtown. Affiliate relations, operations and marketing departments are heavily represented locally. Turner Sports, Cartoon Network and Adult Swim largely operate out of Atlanta along with significant portions of CNN, CNN International and HLN, which recently centralized live programming back to CNN Center.

Local employees continue to await word on how their jobs would be affected by AT&T's roughly $85 billion purchase of Time Warner, which was first announced in 2016 but only recently cleared the last legal challenge from the U.S. Justice Department.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that AT&T shuffling of the Turner and HBO businesses are expected to lead to “significant staff reductions” as the company attempts to shed billions of dollars in debt. The news outlet reported that “the knife is likely to fall hardest on operations at Turner” and could relocate jobs from Atlanta.

On Monday, a WarnerMedia spokeswoman wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “the Atlanta office and operations will continue to exist. There are no plans to close down. In terms of job cuts, we haven’t made any determinations, but ultimately this is not about cost-cutting. Our goal is to refocus our investments and resources into developing content and innovation.”

Ted Turner, right, holds a football at a news conference, Wednesday, April 11, 1985, New York. At left is Bob Wussler, Super Station WTBS president and Robert C. James, Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner, center. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and the Big Ten, Pacific-10 and Atlantic Coast Conferences announced a two-year agreement for live coverage of collage football games during prime-time for the 1985 and 1986 season on cables Super Station WTBS. (AP Photo/Paul Burnett)

Credit: Paul Burnett

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Credit: Paul Burnett

In an internal memo to employees, WarnerMedia chief John Stankey wrote that “we can’t sustain a model where we invest one dollar more than necessary in the administrative aspects of running our business. Put simply, our priority is to direct resources to product development and innovation. The separate administrative structures that exist at Turner and HBO will become more integrated.”

He wrote that employees would hear more in the coming days and that “work remains to completely design the new organization.”

AT&T, which is based in Dallas, is facing increasing competition from the likes of Amazon, Netflix, Apple and Facebook for ad dollars and streaming viewership. The traditional cable model perfected by Turner is being challenged as more people stop paying for cable or satellite subscriptions or never sign up in the first place.

Local boosters hope metro Atlanta’s advantages as a low-cost place to do business would keep much of the former Turner operations local.

Under the new AT&T model, Robert Greenblatt, former chairman of NBC Entertainment, will oversee WarnerMedia Entertainment, which includes HBO and three Turner networks: TNT, TBS and truTV. He will also design a new streaming service. David Levy, a top Turner executive in New York, announced his departure on Friday after decades at the company.

Jeff Zucker, who oversees CNN, CNN Digital and HLN, will also take over all the sports operations including Turner Sports, Bleacher Report and the AT&T Regional Sports Networks. The new division’s name: WarnerMedia News & Sports.

Warner Bros., another division of WarnerMedia, will oversee Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang and Turner Classic Movies. It will be run by Warner Bros. Chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara and is described as a “new global kids and young adults business” in a company release. Warner Bros. already runs its own animation studio DC Entertainment.

An AT&T spokesperson said the Turner brand is unnecessary under the restructuring and the company will be “evolving the Turner brand into the WarnerMedia brand in the weeks and months ahead.” Management’s focus will be to continue to protect the “character and uniqueness” of the specific channel brands such as TBS and TNT.

With the end of Turner as a corporate name, the only vestige of Ted Turner’s moniker may be his beloved TCM, which largely airs old films from the 1930s to the 1960s.

“Given I have been out of the cable and television industry for many years now, I trust Randall Stephenson, John Stankey and the executive team will do what is best for the company, its businesses, and most importantly, its employees,” Ted Turner said in a statement.

Still, “it’s the end of an era,” said Bill Tush, a close friend of Turner’s who did satirical news for TBS back in the 1970s and worked for CNN for more than two decades until 2002.