Conan’s New TBS Bosses: Jets, Limos, Exclusive Elevators

The network of Conan has left its frugal past behind and now spreads the corporate largesse

Last Updated: November 23, 2010 @ 12:21 PM

At the new television network where Conan O'Brien works, private jets are used like taxis, courtside seats and arena suites are openly traded — yet it goes unnoticed outside of Atlanta.

“It’s not easy doing a late-night show on a channel with not a lot of money … so that’s why I left NBC,” O’Brien quipped in his debut monologue on the Turner Broadcasting System. 

Indeed, the TV empire that Ted Turner built on a foundation of corporate frugality would not be recognizable to him today.

>> Handpicked executives, their families and a few clients are flown on a luxurious private airliner to the nation's capital for "Christmas in Washington" every year;

>>  Private jets shuttle Turner brass around for meetings — often just one at a time;

>> A private jet is provided for an out of town birthday party that Turner labeled a "business trip";

>>  Choice seats are doled out for Hawks and Thrashers games at Atlanta’s Philips Arena;

>>  A special security-bypass elevator is available at headquarters for select employees.

Just ask the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, whose luxurious team plane (owned by Mark Cuban and partners) was requisitioned by Turner honchos. They once chartered it to escort a throng of invited family, friends, and a few clients on an all-expense paid weekend to the nation’s capital for a holiday season perk known as “Christmas In Washington.” 

For 12 years running — including the upcoming Dec. 17 telecast — TNT has televised the star-studded yuletide extravaganza, a must-attend event by Washington VIPs, sometimes including the sitting President and First Lady, and hosted this year by Ellen DeGeneres.

An Atlanta delegation will be air-lifted to the event this year, too.

A Turner spokeswoman explained to TheWrap that the charter is a cost-effective means of “hosting a family event for clients.” (It’s unclear whether Turner opted for the $12,000-an-hour Boeing 767 with 100 all-first-class leather seats, or the 63-seater Boeing 757 for slightly less.)

TheWrap piecemealed this picture of excess largely from former employees (“disgruntled” or grudge-holders, in Turner’s view), though the company itself contributed or corroborated details. 

Some of the ex-hands spoke revealingly even in declining comment, saying, “I don’t want to say anything negative about the company.” Others simply noted that they hadn’t shared in perks.  

In a statement to The Wrap, Turner said the company is "confident that our policies and practices meet the highest standard of business conduct and we deny any inappropriate or wasteful use of corporate resources.”

Turner’s corporate lifestyle may or may not be representative of a level that yet survives, or even flourishes, in corporate America during strained economic times. To be sure, the high-on-the-hog image long has been stereotypical of the entertainment industry.

What is striking about Turner is that it would even be considered for anyone’s list, given its origins in Ted Turner’s heritage of corporate frugality.

The storied pioneer who founded CNN took a taxi to work or drove himself in a Ford Taurus. If he’d spot a Town Car idling outside of Turner Broadcasting HQ in downtown Atlanta, the transgressor would be phoned and rebuked.

After Turner sold the company to Time Warner, he reminded the top executives that the company was in the media business, and not a museum for exhibiting expensive paintings on the walls of the executive suites.

Today at headquarters, photos of executives and their kids posing at “Christmas in Washington” adorn high-ranking offices. Town Cars are the preferred ground transportation. Private jets — a common exec business tool and perk — are favored for air travel, and not just by CEO Phil Kent, but all up and down top ranks, according former employees.  

They often seem to be treated like taxis, these people say, with a single executive hopping aboard to fly out of Atlanta, Delta Airlines' headquarters hub. Sometimes, for cosmetics, a senior executive will take along a few underlings.

And a couple of weekends ago came a compelling example of what some employees, past and current, also see as a thin line: Andrew Heller, Turner vice chairman, and Doug Lindauer, senior vice president, sales and marketing, with wives in tow, hopped a jet to Charlotte, N.C., for the 50th birthday party of Bill Goodwyn, a top executive of Discovery Channel.

Did they pay for the trip?

“That was a business trip,” a Turner spokesperson said. “We have a business relationship with Mr. Goodwyn.” Also, she said, a Turner client tagged along. Ferrying as many as eight by private jet would have cost nearly $8,000, a private air charter service quoted The Wrap.

By stretch limo, the Turner party could have made the festivities in about three hours.

Generally, the Turner spokesperson said, private travel is dictated by “issues of security and confidentiality.” Turner doesn’t pick up the tab for personal private travel, and no executive contractually have access to Turner-paid private travel, period.

Turner’s grab bag of perks includes a very popular category that many companies would die for — an enviable number of choice seats and a suite in a professional sports venue, Atlanta’s Philips Arena. Home of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and hockey’s Thrashers, Turner owned the building and teams until it sold them in a deal that required it to load up on tickets. (Actually, Turner botched the transaction and was hit with $300 million in legal damages.)

Obstensibly for entertaining clients, the seats go to employees when not spoken-for for business, the Turner spokeswoman said. But it’s unclear the basis on which they are parceled out.

Indeed, the Philips Arena perk underscores another striking facet of Turner’s culture. According to former employees, there is a haves-and-have-nots air about Turner these days; access to the arena invariably seems to be for the snaring by an in-crowd even among senior executives who can be identified by regular courtside appearances.  

“Everybody had moderate perks,” including tickets to the games, before Turner faded away, says a former vice president. “Once he left, things got out of control. People kind of said, we can dig our hand in the candy jar.” He added that “a definite class system” emerged.

Another high-level ex-executive hesitantly noted, “There definitely is stratification of who has access to what.”

For example, from a parking deck in one part of the CNN Center, certain executives could take a special elevator to bypass security. This was particularly galling to many employees, some not-the-in-crowd honchos.

In past years — and stirring water-cooler gossip — the arena suite has been scene of the birthday parties for the sons of Kelly Regal, an executive vice president, during February when the Ringling Bros. Circus comes to Atlanta. During this time, according to the Turner spokeswoman, the space curiously isn’t in demand by clients, most of whom may not have children.

At Time Warner Center, headquarters of Turner’s corporate parent in New York, glimpses of the Turner lifestyle has sometimes caused a buzz. Visiting Turner executives, fresh off the private jet, pull up in hulking black SUVs to the five-star Trump International Hotel & Tower, across Columbus Circle from Time Warner.

Ironically, such images of high-living corporate life are ones that CEO Jeff Bewkes no longer wants for Time Warner, a long-afflicted media giant that he has dramatically scaled back. Insiders say he recoiled at the expanse of his predecessor Richard Parsons’ office suite.

And now The Wrap has learned that Bewkes even explored vacating the glittering glass-sheath skyscraper, but balked at the penalty the company would have absorbed.

A Bewkes partisan says he believes Turner still operates by Ted Turner’s frugal standards, and that he’s always looking to cut costs, including real estate.

There’s scant chance, however, that even Bewkes wouldn’t want his executive team at Turner to resort to the mode of transportation that Conan chose for a send-up of Ted Turner on the new show: Portrayed by comedian Will Forte, the spoofed Turner rolled onto the stage astride a stuffed buffalo.

No word yet on the buffalo's hourly rate.