Turner's Secret Web Weapon
With CEO Jeff Bewkes predicted to spin off the cable division and make Time Warner (TWX) more content-focused, you might expect AOL (TWX) to lead the company's online strategy. But unit Turner Broadcasting System—which operates CNN, TNT, the Cartoon Network, and other cable channels—has emerged as a surprisingly innovative force in New Media. Leading the charge is David Levy, an executive who is poised to become one of Bewkes' digital czars.
Few would have predicted this. Levy is an old-school TV guy who spent most of his career in a decidedly analog role: selling airtime. But Levy, 45, has used Turner's technology to marry TV to the Web more successfully than many of his rivals. That has allowed him to do two things: sell more ads and persuade the likes of the PGA Tour and Nascar to pay Turner tens of millions of dollars a year to run their Web operations. "He's been a true innovator," says Dick Glover, Nascar's New Media boss, "providing rich interactive experiences." Now Levy is going after one of the biggest sports franchises: the National Basketball Assn. Soon the NBA is expected to announce it has hired Turner to run its Web site and cable channel.
Back in 2003, when Levy was put in charge of Turner's sports division, the cable outfit had only one Web client, nascar.com. Levy figured broadband video would eventually hurt Turner's TV business. So he created the Turner Sports New Media group and looked for more Web deals. By 2006 Turner was managing pga.com and pgatour.com. The NBA would be Levy's biggest deal to date. With 5.5 million unique monthly visitors, nba.com generates nearly twice the traffic of nascar.com, according to Web-tracking service comScore. If the deal mirrors the ones with the PGA and Nascar, Turner would earn a fee for managing both properties and split ad revenues with the NBA. Time Warner doesn't break out Turner's financials, so it's hard to know how Levy's innovations are doing.
But the strategy is clear: Levy aims to get sports fans toggling between the events on TV and Turner's unique features on their laptops. To make sites more compelling, he tapped CNN technology that puts four live screens on a computer at once. Visitors to pgatour.com can watch play on specific holes, zoom in on one player, watch aerial views of the course, and even get golf tips and lessons. Turner uses another technology it developed called TrackPass on nascar.com. It puts viewers inside the cars of favorite drivers as they veer around the track.
Levy's pitch to advertisers: Get both Turner cable's reach and the Web's deep relationship with consumers. Companies can buy ads on specific sites, such as pgatour.com. They can target a demo—men 18 to 34, say—by buying ads on youth-oriented sites, including nascar.com and Turner's adultswim.com and gametap.com. And, of course, marketers can opt to place ads on both TV and the Web. "[Turner has] helped us go deeper with the informed investor," says Bruce Dunbar of Oppenheimer Funds, a pgatour.com advertiser.
Running someone else's Web operation is not risk-free. Seeking more control over its site, the National Football League recently took back NFL.com from CBS (CBS). But Levy has enough Web credibility to make a run for Major League Soccer's huge Web operations, currently managed by Major League Baseball. "No decisions have been made, but we're impressed with [Levy] and the Turner team," says Dan Courtemanche, an MLS spokesman. "They're innovative." You rarely hear that said about an Old Media guy.