Wanted: Exec as 'Digital Superhero'


Today's giant cable operators and programming companies have struggled over integrating digital-media businesses into their organizational structures and finding the right executives to run them.

When mapping plans for digital- cable networks, Web sites, broadband ventures or interactive-TV services, companies face the question of whether to enlist managers with traditional media backgrounds or recruit digital-savvy executives who may have limited management experience.

In a series of recent high-profile executive shakeups, several companies on the programming side of the industry provided their answer.

AOL Time Warner Inc., News Corp. and Discovery Communications Inc. were among companies that engaged in executive or organizational changes that instilled traditional management experience into their digital enterprises.

Companies would love to find a "digital Superman" or "Superwoman" who understands digital business models, technologies and operational demands and can instantly turn their endeavors into a profitable, global force.

The trouble is that such superheroes do not exist. Digital-media businesses are simply too new for anyone to claim they have the ultimate track record to guarantee success-especially in a soft economy.

Companies have come to recognize that with digital media, many of the old rules do not apply, but many do-and some haven't even been written yet.

So, whether recruiting talent from within their organization or from the outside, companies either can seek a tried-and-true manager with the readiness to tackle the digital world or they can take a risky-yet-bold approach by drafting from the new-media ranks. Each approach can be enhanced through outsourcing for consultants or vendors with digital expertise.

Currently, the tide in executive recruitment has turned toward the tried-and-true rather than the risky-yet-bold.

"Understanding of traditional media is critical," says Kate Hampford, president and COO of executive recruiter Carlsen Resources Inc. "That's where a lot of the dot-coms missed the boat."

AOL Time Warner turned to the most traditional of electronic media businesses-broadcasting-in moving Jamie Kellner, head of The WB Television Network, to chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System Inc. His responsibilities include TBS' digital networks and Web sites.

In another back-to-basics move, AOL Time Warner shifted Bob Friedman, a top New Line Cinema executive, to president of AOL TV, the interactive-TV service.

AOL Time Warner is the ultimate proving ground for blending traditional and new media.

Company co-COO Bob Pittman reminded a Web-oriented audience at the recent Jupiter Media Forum that although he's often portrayed as an AOL guy, his roots are with Time Warner. Pittman might as well have been saying, "I'm as cool as you Internet people, I just don't lose money like you do."

Companies are trying to create "org charts" that integrate new and old media, but they've vacillated between launching digital initiatives as separate ventures or housing them within existing structures.

The Walt Disney Co. and NBC spun off their portal businesses, only to see these publicly traded companies get hammered in the stock downturn. The Walt Disney Internet Group recently abandoned its Go.com portal while retaining management oversight of such sites as ESPN.com.

In January, News Corp. shut down its online division and returned oversight of its Web properties to their sister networks, such as Fox News Channel.

Discovery recently created a cross-platform content group designed to leverage its content across multiple distribution outlets. Discovery Networks U.S. president Jonathan Rodgers and former Discovery Health Media president John Ford head the group.

In media conglomerates, "getting everyone to work together is the big challenge," Hampford says.

All executive changes aren't made with digital in mind. Shakeups will continue to occur for conventional reasons, such as merit promotions, executive skill sets and business expansion, or for the usual, more nefarious causes, including internal politics, cronyism or fallout from a major screw-up.

But the volatility and uncertainty of digital media has put more pressure on companies to find an organizational mix that produces positive results-and produces them quickly.

USA Networks recently named Doug Herzog, former head of Comedy Central, as its president due to his programming experience, not due to digital expertise. Yet Herzog's cable business background will be valuable in the company's digital maneuvers.

Executives who can capitalize on digital opportunities can become instant stars. But with the way these businesses have struggled recently, they can also hang around an executive's neck like an albatross.

So companies are relying upon executives who possess solid business skills and can climb the steep digital learning curve to become superheroes, faster than a speeding bullet and in a single bound.

This strategy makes sense in today's economy. But if traditional executives become slaves to the bottom line and are unwilling to take the risks that digital media often require, they could find themselves overtaken by a more competitive breed.

For what often gets overlooked in the hubbub over executive shakeups is that the ultimate boss is the consumer. If executives don't listen to consumers' preferences for digital media, these would-be Supermen will be as mortal as Clark Kent.

Craig Leddy, disguised as a mild-mannered columnist, fights for digital truth, justice and a paycheck. Contact him at LeddyColumn@aol.com.