News & Politics

Jeff Bewkes Talks to David Rubenstein, and the Washington Biz Community Listens

The head of Time Warner visits Washington to talk about the future.

David Rubenstein and Jeffrey Bewkes. Photograph by Ralph Alswang/the Economic Club of Washington.

Here are some observations about Jeff Bewkes: He’s got the physique of Barack Obama (a tall drink of water with no apparent body fat), a patrician deportment not given to extreme displays of emotion (though with a smile that betrays the facade), the professional focus of a heat-seeking missile, and, at every possible juncture in discussing modern media, a purposeful way of invoking the word “Internet.” He is the picture of the modern corporate executive, but with a leg up: He can boast a longer and more successful run than most, as head of HBO and now, for six years, Time Warner, where he is the CEO and chairman of the board.

Wednesday night he was interviewed by another corporate powerhouse, Carlyle Group cofounder David Rubenstein, at a dinner sponsored by the Economic Club of Washington. While the two men talked on a small stage, the club’s members dined on steak and potatoes in the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel. No surprise, the audience of businessmen and women were respectful and attentive, decked out in enough pinstripes to circle the metro Washington area and back again.

No matter the media platform–print, broadcast, film–Bewkes views the Internet as its future. He does not believe those forms of media will go away, but he does believe they will become reliant on an “evolving Internet.” Comparing this era to a time not so long ago when television consisted of only three commercial networks, he sees remarkable opportunity ahead, especially with the many platforms available to content providers. “All of that has evolved into being on the Internet, and we’re at the forefront of that,” he said. “The Web is not just the printed word; it’s also moving pictures. The Internet allows us a diversity of choice and the business models to support it. I want our company to evolve into that stage.” He noted that now what we watch goes with us wherever, whenever, and on whatever device we choose–phone, tablet, laptop. The only negatives he seemed to harbor about the Internet are the seeming fly-by-night developers whose ideas aren’t well thought out. He said some of these Web entrepreneurs think they are “gonna take over the world. No one stops to ask what it means and whether it has lasting power. What’s being developed is overturned every Thursday. You have to know what’s real.”

While he now runs the whole of Time Warner, Bewkes has an affection for HBO akin to that of a parent who has watched his first child grow big and tall, smart and successful. It was revolutionary when the company started with a premise of offering programming to subscribers. “Viewers paid for everything, and that changed the business model,” he said of the network that has grown to at least seven channels and, according to its website, 41 million subscribers in the US alone. The money HBO makes depends on that consumer attraction. “We make money because you buy a subscription. We’re trying to make things that in your mind are worth paying for and because you don’t care about the ratings,” he explained.

Nonetheless, Rubenstein asked Bewkes to name HBO’s highest-rated shows. He ticked off pop culture juggernauts like The Sopranos, True Blood, and Game of Thrones, as well as hits such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm–even the political film Game Change, which debuted only last weekend.

The focus of the conversation expanded beyond HBO to cover the other dimensions of the Time Warner empire, including magazines, cable news, and movie production. The company publishes Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and People, among other titles. Bewkes assured the audience that magazines are not going away, but “are gravitating toward the Web.” He said they are the principal source of journalism, and “what we can’t fit in the magazines we can give to you through the Internet.” That’s what will keep magazines vital, he opined.

Bewkes said he recognizes the trend in cable news is to take sides–extreme left, extreme right–but is proud that CNN is, as he says, “down the middle.” He said the goal is to be objective, because that is the root of journalism. “A lot of things are happening in the world, and you have to cover them across the spectrum. The point is not to reduce them to politics and pick a side.”

But what about Larry King? Bewkes didn’t take the bait in commenting on the legacy of King, whose Larry King Live was for years the crown jewel of the news channel. On the other hand, he didn’t become exuberant about King’s successor, Piers Morgan, who has pulled so-so ratings, saying only, “It’s working out well,” and that Morgan’s show is occasionally “pretty lively. He has a good range.”

Bewkes said Time Warner’s largest amount of production is for television and film and that 30 percent of the company’s revenue comes from outside the United States. “The television business in the US and across the world is very strong,” he said. “Viewership is up, budgets are up, earnings are up. TV is a bursting industry.” The company’s television channels are all over the world, although “less in China because they won’t take in a lot of unedited content, and not just in news.” He was too diplomatic to use the C word, as in censorship.

Personally, he admitted to being something of a techie, using more than one brand of cell phone and also an iPad. But he stops short of hooking into social networks. His company uses Twitter, he said, “but I don’t think public CEOs are allowed to use Twitter or Facebook.” Hmmm. We’ll have to double-check that one.

Bewkes said he does not meddle in the production process. “It’s important that we have a strong commitment to autonomy with our editorial and creative people. We don’t second-guess. That’s the culture of Time Warner.” Of all the divisions, who has the biggest egos? “I’d probably insult the movie people if I didn’t give them the ego award,” he said. Does he get away from work? Yes; he prefers sailing and skiing.

And last but not least, does he have a favorite show? “I can’t answer,” he demurred. “I love all our children.”