‘Turner 2020’ will reshape CNN

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John Martin. (AP Photo/Turner)
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Alex Weprin

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Last week Turner Broadcasting officially embarked on its “Turner 2020” plan, offering buyouts to some 600 veteran employees. After those buyouts, the company will engage in layoffs across its portfolio of channels, which include TBS, CNN, TNT, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, TruTV and HLN, as well as other properties like Turner Sports and Bleacher Report.

The cuts will clear a wide swath across Turner, and no one channel is expected to be spared. As Capital reported last month, Turner C.E.O. John Martin wrote in a memo to staff that “A core team of our colleagues has looked at the purpose, structure and fit of literally every department in the company—more than 700 in all,” and that decisions on staffing would be based on those analyses.

That said, the fear at CNN is more acute than at TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network, with sports and kids deemed growth areas, and boosting TBS and TNT’s entertainment programming a public priority for Time Warner. CNN and HLN are in something of a lurch.

Inside CNN and HLN, gallows humor has taken hold, with employees joking about possible cost savings, like bringing their own pens into work, or “revenue opportunities” like charging employees to access the bathrooms. In a private Facebook group for current and former CNN staffers, someone mocked up a “Turner 2020” version of CNN’s current marketing campaign, which has the CNN logo next to its new tagline “Go There.” The group’s mockup features the same logo and font, but with words “CNN: Get Out.”

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In an email to Turner staff last week, the company’s H.R. team encouraged staff to take a class called “managing change resiliency.”

“In uncertain times it can be challenging to stay focused. There is no doubt that change can be stressful,” the email, which was forwarded to Capital, reads. “In this workshop you will gain information about resilience -- how to be flexible and fluid during times of confusion and uncertainty.”

Based on conversations with multiple staffers at CNN, as well as with former staff who keep in touch with current employees, confusion and uncertainty seems to be rampant. That being said, there seem to be a few parts of the company that are particularly concerned about what may be coming in the next month or so, as “Turner 2020” moves past the buyout phase and into the layoff phase.

A spokesperson for CNN declined to comment.

Newsgathering

CNN’s newsgathering operation, one of the crown jewels of the channel, could be in for a rough time once the cuts roll in. While CNN’s studio shows won’t be going off the air (although employees at those shows are not immune to cuts), CNN’s robust newsgathering operation seems ripe for trimming.

“We are going to have to do what we do with less,” CNN president Jeff Zucker told employees last week, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. That comment was perceived as being directed toward CNN’s newsgathering team. In fact, recent layoffs in New York and Washington D.C. were seen as something of a preemptive effort to save money, with laid off employees encouraged to apply for new jobs, with lower pay scales. Still, it may not be enough. While CNN can’t gut its newsgathering operation, there is a feeling inside the company that there is room to trim, which raises questions about how effective or aggressive CNN will be at covering breaking stories in the future.

Atlanta

CNN and HLN staffers in Atlanta are particularly concerned about the potential cuts, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution noted earlier this week. While Turner has established a backbone infrastructure in Atlanta that is unlikely to disappear, the fact that Time Warner is moving to a new New York headquarters raises the possibility that some departments in Atlanta could shift to New York, where there will be abundant newfound space.

While Turner was founded in Atlanta, there has been a clear shift north in recent years. Martin and Zucker are both based in New York, while their predecessors were largely in Atlanta. Beyond possible backbone cuts, or shifting teams to New York, staff in Atlanta are concerned because the job market for television staff in the city is slim. Other than Turner, the only other major TV company in Atlanta is The Weather Channel, so if staff are reluctant to leave the city, their options for TV jobs are limited. Laid off staff in New York or Los Angeles can look for jobs at Viacom, Disney, NBCUniversal, CBS or elsewhere, but in Atlanta, the market is limited.

That said, one CNN source says that the channel wouldn't be able to function without the Atlanta backbone, so while there may be cuts, CNN is unlikely to abandon the city altogether. Production, graphics, satellites, and engineering are all based out of Atlanta, and while those jobs could in theory shift to New York, it would take some time to make that transition.

HLN

HLN is in trouble. While it is still in the process of trying to rebrand as the social media network, it now appears as though Turner may try to jettison it altogether before the rebrand ever happens. The long-discussed spinoff with Vice is apparently dead, but that does not mean all is well with the channel, which has not drawn substantial revenue in years. HLN remains largely based in Atlanta, despite its top executive, Albie Hecht, being based in New York. Without a clear focus, HLN could be a ripe target for the cuts that will follow the buyouts, if the channel isn’t spun off or sold first. If it is sold or spun off, it is likely that hundreds of employees in its Atlanta headquarters would be unemployed.

On the other hand

CNN and HLN may face the brunt of the cuts, but the news is not all bad. Executives at CNN Digital are said to be more optimistic, with their unit carving out a significant chunk of the online news space, a growth area if there ever was one. While that unit may not be spared cuts entirely, there is a strong possibility that some of the “cost savings” from other units could be shifted to digital, which is embarking on its own original programming campaign this year.

Likewise, CNN’s original programming unit, which acquires films and TV shows from outside production companies (think “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” and “Blackfish”), is a small, lean team, and may not be affected by the cuts. The issue with acquired programming is always that the upfront costs are very high. That being said, those shows have quickly become the most reliable ratings draws on CNN, and they can be replayed endlessly, unlike studio shows.

At the other Turner channels, concern is still the primary emotion, as the cuts are not expected to spare any one channel or division. Cartoon Network, like TNT and TBS, has had a rough few years, and Time Warner C.E.O. Jeff Bewkes has commented publicly that those three channels are in need of a revamp. That will likely mean cuts, but also new funding to try and turn them around.

Turner Sports will need extra funding to secure a new N.B.A. rights deal, and the company is expected to find the funds to make that deal happen.

Adult Swim, arguably the most successful channel in Turner’s portfolio, thanks to its relatively small staff and its strong ratings, is likely to be affected less than many of the other channels. That being said, Adult Swim, like TBS and TNT, is currently based out of Atlanta, and there is no guarantee that will remain the case. Turner is without an entertainment chief following the departure of Steve Koonin earlier this year, and Turner just lost Michael Wright, who led programming at TBS and TNT. There is a strong possibility that whoever replaces Koonin will be based in Los Angeles, rather than Atlanta, where Koonin held fort, moving the company even further from Atlanta.