Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO Richard Parsons has touched a wide swath of people inside the television industry through his work at the media giant, his varied public sector efforts and considerable industry involvement. We asked some of the people whose personal and professional lives have intersected with Parsons to relate their impressions of him.
Kim Kelly, former COO, Insight Communications Co.
Kim Kelly’s connection with Parsons is an unusual one within the industry. She met him at a dinner party her parents gave when he was a 20-something general counsel to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller under President Ford.
“Even early on, people were talking about him as one of the youngest general counsels … about how he was meant to be a leader. It’s more than just knowing the law. You really have to be multi-dimensional in that position,” she says.
During her time at Insight, Kelly got to know Parsons even better, and she admires his personnel skills. “He sees talent in everybody,” she says. “He knows how to position [his people] in the field.”
She recalls Parsons’ agreement to speak at a Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau conference even though advertising typically makes up just 10% of an MSO’s bottom line. “The year he came, we had the highest attendance ever. That was a good fund-raiser for us.”
Geraldine Laybourne, chairman and CEO, Oxygen Media
Laybourne also got to know Parsons through his public sector efforts at New York’s Bank Street College and the USA Freedom Corps, an organization that coordinates volunteer efforts.
She recalls introducing several executives at a Freedom Corps event, and all read from a script — except one. “He brings his sense of humor to business and non-profits,” she says.
Laybourne recalls Parson’s directness and candidness on the keynote panel session at this year’s National Show, which also included Charter Communications Inc. chairman Paul Allen and Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts.
“If only we could get more leaders to compete on honesty,” she says.
Robert Sachs, President, National Cable & Telecommunications Association
It is sometimes tempting to think of Parsons as one of the cable industry’s most influential leaders, while forgetting his plate also includes music, publishing, movies, The WB, syndication, books and a troubled online company. Cable actually represents a small part of his empire.
That’s what Sachs notices about Parsons: his ability to meld such divergent businesses, some of which were in turmoil when he took over. “He’s been a very stabilizing force for Time Warner,” Sachs says.
Sachs says Time Warner has supported cable industry initiatives even though the company often represents different sides of an issue. “They do a very good job of vetting issues within the company so that in Washington the company is able to speak with one voice.”
Walter Isaacson, president and CEO, Aspen Institute
Isaacson, the former head of CNN, points to Parsons acute listening skills, level-headed common sense, persuasiveness and ability to consider all sides of a dispute.
He recalls some turbulent years at Time Warner where infighting among executives at AOL, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting System threatened to undermine the corporation’s goals. “He could step in, bring all sides together and render a clean decision.”
Parsons liked to delegate, and relies heavily on top executives Don Logan and Jeff Bewkes for answers, Isaacson notes. “He’s not a micromanager. He says, 'OK, here’s how we have to execute.’ His vision is good execution and smart, reliable thinking. He doesn’t get too mystical.”
Kay Koplovitz, Chairman, Reality Central
Kay Koplovitz, the founder of the USA Network, has known Parsons since his days running New York’s Dime Savings Bank, where both served as trustees on The Partnership for New York City. He impressed Koplovitz with his ability to quietly and effectively work behind the scenes to get things done.
“Dick knows how to back-channel — and I mean that in a positive sense,” she says.
Parson’s extensive resume in the public sector has made the deepest mark on Koplovitz, including his work in New York to help rebuild Harlem and the Central Park Conservancy. She notes: “He did a beautiful job on the [restoration and preservation] of the Apollo Theater,” arguably Harlem’s best-known landmark.
Like Kelly, Koplovitz cites Parson’s willingness to work behind the scenes. “He doesn’t do things in a flamboyant public way. He’s very astute in pulling together the threads of the power base to get things done. He’s not looking at self-aggrandizement.”
Henry Schleiff, CEO, Court TV
At the 1960 U.S. Open, Arnold Palmer found himself seven strokes down to Jack Nicklaus. Palmer famously hitched up his pants, and calmly charged back to win. In speaking of Parsons, Henry Schleiff describes a management style that resembles that historic golfing comeback.
“He exudes an air of calmness and confidence,” Schleiff says in recalling the worst days at Court TV, which is partially owned by Time Warner. “I didn’t appreciate how dire the circumstances were. He kind of sat me down — and it wasn’t so much the substantive suggestions … it was more about his demeanor.”
Parsons did not try and tackle all the network’s problems at once. “He says, 'Let’s concentrate on getting distribution, and maybe the next challenge should be ratings, and out of that will come advertising.’”
Then there’s his self-deprecating sense of humor. “He’s a great guy to hang out with,” Schlieff says, laughing.
Nicholas Davatzes, CEO, A&E Networks
Davatzes and Parsons sometimes come down on opposite sides of the fence on major issues facing cable in Congress. After all, Parsons represents the No. 2 MSO, one that has been a vocal critic of rising programming costs, as well as a TV network that is helped by the must-carry rules.
But the A&E chief says Parsons has quietly defused any rough spots in that area with his quiet, consensus-building style. “He’s been very thoughtful and willing to see both sides of each issue. That is important when you come to conclusions.”
Davatzes also cites Parsons’ keen eye for talent and the strong self-confidence that allows him to hire strong deputies like Logan and Bewkes.