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Lord of These Things

Does sensible technocrat Jeff Bewkes, who spent 28 years rising through the ranks to CEO, have the solution for Time Warner’s problems? (And what if there isn’t one?)

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Illustration by Sean McCabe  

Jeffrey Bewkes, the new chief executive of sprawling, stalled media conglomerate Time Warner Inc., hardly fits the mold of a swashbuckling visionary.

Seven years after the disastrous merger with America Online—and the subsequent vaporizing of $125 billion in shareholder equity—the company, its massive shopping mall–cum–headquarters astride Columbus Circle, suffers from a lingering post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s supposed to fix that.

Time Warner’s battered stock price—which closed at about $18 a share on the day Bewkes’s long-anticipated promotion was announced in early November—actually slid below $16 during Bewkes’s first week on the job. Soon he’ll move down the hall on the eleventh floor of the Time Warner Center from his chief operating officer’s lair to the CEO’s suite, with its zebrawood finishes and a party-ready terrace with views straight across Central Park and beyond.

A former colleague describes Bewkes, 55, as a quasi hypochondriac who fastidiously washes up after shaking hands (“If you’ve got a cold,” says the colleague, “Jeff won’t come anywhere near you”) and can expound learnedly on the relative merits of various antibiotics. Slender as a paring knife, with his handsome features keenly chiseled, Bewkes (pronounced byu-kiss) seems to lack unnecessary appetites or aspirations. He has, by most accounts, stayed uninfected by the sorts of virulent megalomanias endemic to the media business. This scrupulous detachment is among his chief qualifications for the job. It’s how he got there.

“With other people who rise in a corporation, they change how they dress, they change their barber, sometimes they get a pinkie ring,” says HBO Documentaries chief Sheila Nevins, who has known him since they both went to work for the fledgling pay-television channel in 1979—when “Jeff was that skinny kid from Yale in accounting”—“but Jeff didn’t change. He didn’t get a vineyard, he didn’t buy a castle. He still has a tuna sandwich for lunch, and doesn’t even eat the whole thing.”

While running HBO and then overseeing Time Warner’s entertainment and networks group—including Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, and the Turner cable channels—Bewkes resisted making the hajj to Sun Valley for Herb Allen’s mogul convention until he could no longer avoid it. His first appearance was in the summer of 2005, when he was about to be named CEO Richard Parsons’s No. 2.

“He’s extremely smart and he thinks on a global scale,” attests David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, which Bewkes decided to put on HBO. “He can talk very easily about complicated political-economic conditions and situations, and he’s one of the funnier guys I’ve ever met. He projects an absence of panic and fear.”

That is a useful trait in a once-imperial company recently surpassed by News Corp. as the planet’s biggest media conglomerate by market capitalization. “Jeff is his own man,” says Don Logan, who was co-deputy to Parsons with Bewkes. “He approaches business decisions by trying to gather the facts and information and tries to make fact-based decisions. He’s creative, he’s got a great sense of humor, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and he’s got a great temperament for what’s ahead.”

Bewkes is known for being an outrageous flirt, especially with actresses. (“He’s a perfectly charming man,” says Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, who has known Bewkes for a decade, “and, superficially, quite easy on the eyes.”) But the opinion-makers of high finance have yet to be seduced. “It’s not clear there’s any simple solution available,” says Logan, who’s retired to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. “But Jeff is going to have to make some kind of a decision just to demonstrate to Wall Street that he’s doing something. He’s probably facing a ‘first 100 days’ scenario to show he’s willing to take things up and change things, whatever those things happen to be. I don’t have any ideas.”

Back in November, Parsons appeared at a VIP conference hosted by the investment firm Quadrangle Group LLC.

“If you were Jeff, coming in—” he was asked.

“If I were Jeff,” Parsons interrupted, “I would shoot myself.”

The thing is, there are a lot of ideas out there of what Bewkes could do besides shoot himself. The question is whether any of them are going to do any good. The same day Parsons made his joking suicide recommendation to his successor, Bewkes submitted to a rare public grilling at the Nielsen and Dow Jones Media and Money conference. Keeping a poker face that suggested he found the situation mildly amusing, he coolly rebuffed Wall Street Journal online executive editor Alan Murray’s efforts to get him to reveal his plans to fix Time Warner: Will he unload AOL? Sell Time Inc.? Spin off Time Warner Cable?

“Every option is on the table,” Bewkes intoned. Swallowing his words, he sounded as though his uncensored thoughts were lodged somewhere in his throat. “If all these businesses are going so well,” Murray asked, “why is the stock price just sitting there?”


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