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Viacom Taps Former AOL Time Warner Exec

March 27, 2001|SALLIE HOFMEISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Viacom Inc. named former AOL Time Warner Inc. executive Richard Bressler as chief financial officer, succeeding Fredric Reynolds, who will become head of the company's troubled CBS television station group.

Bressler, 43, who had been head of Time Warner's Internet group, was left without an operating role after America Online's acquisition in January of the world's largest entertainment company.

Bressler, who had a key role in negotiating the merger, had been CFO of Time Warner from 1995 until 1999, and was instrumental in cleaning up the company's balance sheet and reducing its debt.

"I thought it was a great coup," said Mel Karmazin, chief operating officer of Viacom. "AOL gets hurt by losing one of its key executives. We were pleased there was a way for him to negotiate his way out of his non-compete [contract]."

Wall Street analysts were surprised that AOL Time Warner let Bressler go despite having cut him out of a prominent role in restructuring the company. Bressler was in charge of an investment arm at AOL Time Warner.

"Rich was very well-known and well liked on the Street and had a key role in revamping Time Warner's balance sheet," said Jessica Reif Cohen, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. "But he didn't have a job in the new company. Nobody could figure it out."

Bressler will start at Viacom on May 1.

Reynolds, 50, resigned as CFO a few weeks ago to rejoin his family in California and take an unspecified job with the company on the West Coast. His appointment to president of CBS Television Stations Group came as a surprise to Wall Street and industry executives, given his lack of experience in news and programming.

While Karmazin said Bressler faces "few problems" in his new job because of a strong balance sheet left by Reynolds, he said the station group has been "the biggest frustration for me."

John Severino, who has held the stations job for less than a year, will remain with Viacom in a consulting role during the transition, the company said. Severino, also will remain president and general manager of KCBS-TV Channel 2, until a successor is named.

The move came as a surprise to staffers at KCBS, where Severino has been in charge since September 1998. The former general manager at KABC-TV Channel 7 had brought several reporters and anchors from KABC to KCBS, most notably Harold Greene as co-anchor of the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts, to bolster struggling ratings.

Though CBS does not break out the financial performance of the group, its stations historically have been No. 3 or No. 4 in the local ratings. Industry executives say the stations have suffered from poor management and that even improvements in CBS' prime-time ratings have not helped prop up viewership of its late newscast.

Reynolds has been negotiating station swaps to bring Viacom into compliance with a federal rule that prevents a single owner from controlling stations that reach more than 35% of the nation's viewers. With 16 CBS affiliates and 19 stations affiliated with Viacom's UPN network, the company reaches about 40% of the nation's viewers.

Karmazin acknowledged that Reynolds lacks experience, but noted that other respected station chiefs rose out of the financial end of the business.

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Times staff writer Greg Braxton contributed to this report.

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