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The Very Model of a Modern Media Manager

AOL Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes is seen as unflappable, but his cool could be tested at the company's annual meeting today.

May 16, 2003|Michael Cieply and Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writers

NEW YORK — John Billock, second in command at AOL Time Warner Inc.'s cable unit, can't forget the day he and Jeff Bewkes tried to sail the 20-odd miles from Martha's Vineyard to Nantucket Island back when they were executives at HBO.

They set out in a small boat with no motor or compass. After five hours fighting dead-on winds in shoals, fog and heavy water, Bewkes declared: "Look, we're only halfway. We can keep going, but chances are 50-50 that we're going to die."

Howling with laughter, he added: "If we don't make it, how extraordinary is that?"

The pair sailed on for 10 hours, never reaching the island. They drifted back to safety early the next day -- with Bewkes still laughing. That, Billock said, was vintage. "He doesn't take himself and obstacles that seriously."

Unusual aplomb is one of the gifts that carried Jeffrey Bewkes from the relative security of HBO, where he spent virtually all of his 26-year career, to the perilous top of show business management as head of AOL Time Warner's massive entertainment and networks group.

Now the unflappable executive must prove he can really navigate hazards, beginning with angry venting by shareholders at the company's annual meeting today in Landsdowne, Va. Whether he can beat such threats as digital piracy, shifting competition and pressure to reduce debt will determine whether AOL -- and perhaps the industry at large -- prospers under a new generation of corporate managers who are fast replacing the last wave of entrepreneurs and builders.

Bewkes "has all the abilities I have and more," said Richard Parsons, 55, who will become AOL's chairman at the meeting, capping a year of executive departures and $100 billion in losses.

Born to the East Coast elite, Bewkes, who is MBA-equipped and a corporate loyalist, is a novelty in the entertainment industry.

A disciplined, well-ordered personality, he has just enough flair to prosper in a sometimes unruly business. He may well represent the new "organization man" -- the kind of person more likely to run media corporations of the future than such Hollywood-bred players as Walt Disney Co.'s Michael Eisner or moguls such as Viacom Inc.'s Sumner Redstone.

"He's a good model for the modern-day manager in entertainment," said Tom Freston, Viacom's MTV Networks chief.

The tall, graying and whip-thin Bewkes, who turns 51 this month, is barely known to a public that has savored programs -- including "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City" -- born during his seven years as HBO's chief executive.

But his promotion in July made him one of the entertainment industry's most powerful figures, with a portfolio that includes such properties as Warner Bros., New Line Cinema, Warner Music Group and CNN.

Bewkes declined to be interviewed. Associates said that was because of the delicacy of his position as AOL tries to shake off the rough internal politics of its recent past while confronting problems that include a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of possible accounting irregularities at the company's online unit, which Bewkes doesn't oversee.

Bewkes can be blunt-spoken almost to the point of self- destruction, as when he is said to have advised then-boss Gerald Levin to scrap Time Warner Inc.'s still-unconsummated merger with America Online Inc. more than two years ago.

Still, Bewkes uses humor to take the edge off confrontations and awkward situations. As one story goes, when he was caught with dog droppings on his shoe at a job interview at Stanford's business school, he said simply: "I guess that's it for my investment banking career."

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Cautious Steps

While rarely showing his ambitions, Bewkes has tended his career with care -- and perhaps excess caution. Asked to run AOL's cable empire or, by some accounts, to consider heading Warner Bros., he instead chose the known path and relatively assured profits of HBO, which he joined in 1979. He also passed on a chance to head fast-growing America Online before the merger, a job that went to Bob Pittman.

Bewkes wandered into show business as a kind of accidental tourist on holiday from a charmed life. At 20, he worked briefly as TV producer Leonard Stern's gofer, in a job that involved chauffeuring Diana Rigg of "The Avengers." Stern said Bewkes landed the position thanks to his businessman father, Eugene Garrett Bewkes Jr., who owned a stake in Stern's company.

The elder Bewkes was a top executive with Norton Simon Inc. in the 1970s and later chairman of American Bakeries Co. His father, Eugene Garrett Bewkes Sr., was a professor of philosophy at Colgate University and later headed St. Lawrence University.

Like his older brother, investment banker Eugene Garrett Bewkes III, Jeff Bewkes attended Deerfield Academy; he then moved on to Yale. "They were loaded," media maven Steve Brill, who was at Deerfield and Yale two years ahead of Jeff, said of the family.

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