Few media executives have embraced television’s digital future more than Jeff Bewkes. The chief executive officer of media giant Time Warner Inc. was an early promoter of making shows available anytime on any device. He’s started selling HBO to cord-cutters who don’t pay for cable. And this week, Time Warner bought a 10 percent stake in Hulu LLC, helping the online video service compete with the likes of Netflix Inc. and Comcast Corp.
Seated in a Time Warner Center conference room overlooking Manhattan’s Central Park last month, Bewkes said his company is well-positioned for a shifting landscape that’s no longer just about making shows and movies but also about finding the most profitable way to sell them.
“There’s more innovation in business models than there was five or 10 years ago,” Bewkes said. “It’s becoming global and it’s becoming technologically enhanced with video on demand. That means the distribution models change.”
But Bewkes’s strategy only works if Time Warner has a stable of hits, and the 64-year-old executive is entering a critical stretch that will test his company and potentially cement his legacy. HBO can only ride the success of “Game of Thrones” for two more seasons and must find a new show to carry the mantle. The Warner Bros. movie studio is banking on a new group of DC Comics superheroes to win over audiences after “Batman vs Superman” failed to reach the heights of Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel movies. And Turner’s collection of cable networks must get into more ambitious programming after years of relying on “Law & Order” and “Big Bang Theory” reruns.
Under Bewkes’s eight-year tenure as CEO, Time Warner has been reshaped to focus on the business of Hollywood, with former units AOL, Time Warner Cable and magazine publisher Time Inc. spun off into independent companies. Shrinking Time Warner was “a strategy that Jeff had been thinking about for a long time before he became CEO,” said Don Logan, who used to run the publishing division.
“He was always trying to stay one step ahead of where he needed to be five years downstream,” Logan said. “He looked at all the changes going on with cable and believed they had more flexibility if they controlled the content rather than the distribution.”
Now Bewkes is steering Time Warner through a period of seismic change in the entertainment industry. Netflix and Amazon.com Inc. are spending extravagant sums on shows and movies, forcing traditional TV networks to keep up and consider delivering online services directly to consumers, as HBO has done. Cable companies are under pressure to offer cheaper plans with fewer channels, meaning networks need to prove their content is vital to avoid being cut from the basic lineup.