After two turbulent years that saw CNN's prime-time shows slip behind those of rival Fox News Channel, Jamie Kellner is stepping down as chairman of AOL Time Warner Inc.'s cable networks.
Kellner, 55, told top AOL executives late last year that he wanted to resign to return to his home in Santa Barbara and tend to the WB -- the network he founded -- before retiring next year. But the move underscored his inability to fit in with the culture of AOL Time Warner's Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System or to forge a relationship with CNN founder Ted Turner.
Rather than focus on being first on the air with breaking news, critics say, Kellner put an emphasis on hiring celebrity anchors such as Connie Chung and Paula Zahn. CNN's Headline News was redesigned with busy graphics to appeal to younger viewers.
Kellner also pushed to merge CNN and ABC News, despite strong internal opposition from Turner and others.
In the end, Kellner could not shake his image as a Hollywood showman intent on boosting CNN's numbers through snappy presentations and star power. At the same time, Fox continued to widen its ratings lead in the key prime-time hours.
Kellner said in an interview Tuesday that he was proud of his record in Atlanta, adding that the changes he brought improved the network. He said his departure had nothing to do with any criticism; he simply had fulfilled his promise to run Turner Broadcasting for two years.
"Now it's time to come home," Kellner said. After successfully launching two networks, Fox and the WB, "I think that's enough for me."
Tuesday's shuffle represents more upheaval in the executive suite of AOL Time Warner and a further dismantling of the management team set up after AOL and Time Warner merged two years ago. It also is a sign of the company's effort to return CNN to its past glory.
Kellner will be succeeded by former CNN News Group President Philip I. Kent, who had spent eight years with the network.
Kent left the company a year and a half ago after Kellner bypassed him when filling CNN's top job. Kellner instead tapped former Time magazine Managing Editor Walter Isaacson to run CNN. Isaacson quit last month.
Now, Kent -- who began his own career as a talent agent in Hollywood -- returns to oversee not only CNN but TNT, TBS Superstation, the Cartoon Network, Turner Classic Movies and the Turner sports empire, including the Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball teams.
In an AOL Time Warner statement, Kent said he was looking forward to "building on Ted Turner's legacy." He takes over March 10.
Jeff Bewkes, chairman of the company's entertainment and network groups, said that he began hunting for a replacement for Kellner last month and called Kent, who had spent a year traveling after leaving CNN and before beginning a job search last fall.
Bewkes said he was confident that Kent would succeed.
"He knows this company quite well and has built very good relationships with people here," he said.
Kellner will continue to run Acme Communications Inc., a group of WB television stations in smaller markets. He also will remain chairman and chief executive of the WB network through June 2004, when his contract expires.
He said he planned to spend the coming year working with Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer to find his replacement.
The short list already includes two WB veterans, President Jed Petrick and Entertainment President Jordan Levin, Kellner said.
Kellner's departure comes one month after AOL Time Warner paid $128 million to buy out his and other top WB executives' stakes in the network in a deal structured two years ago. Kellner's share, according to a company source, was nearly $100 million.
Along with Kellner, control of the youth-targeted network returns to Burbank. When Kellner moved to Atlanta, he remained in charge but struggled to meld the WB with the Turner system. Now the WB again will report to Warner Bros.
Some say that this should streamline efforts to get more Warner Bros. programming on the air.
"It's nice to now have the WB back in its strategic place, where it began," Meyer said. "The WB needs high-quality programming, and Warner Bros. very much needs a platform for its shows."
Tribune Co., publisher of The Times, owns 22.5% of the WB network.
Times staff writer Elizabeth Jensen contributed to this report.