Independent broadcast

Chris Groves from Turner Broadcasting System aims for him and his team to go it alone whenever possible, so his legal advisers should watch out. Steve Hoare reports

August 2002, Chris Groves decided that the future was not so bright for Orange, so he quit to become Turner Broadcasting’s head of legal for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA). Turner is a large company in the US with around 8,000 employees and a legal department of around 40 lawyers in its Atlanta headquarters. The company was sold to Time Warner in 1996 and is still a part of the AOL Time Warner conglomerate. Post-merger, AOL Time Warner has been hit by some high-profile departures, including Turner founder Ted Turner and AOL head honcho Steve Case, but Groves appreciates the support network offered by his counterparts at AOL and Time Warner. They are planning to meet regularly to assess law firms and review internal salaries.

Led by the all-conquering CNN, there has been a sustained effort to expand outside the US. There are three regions outside the US. The Latin American legal team of two is headed by Bill Muller, Asia Pacific’s four lawyers are led by Christine Cameron and Groves’ team covers EMEA. While Groves reports in to the Atlanta team, his main client, the EMEA management, is fairly autonomous. “They’re my clients, but we also discuss strategic, business and commercial affairs. I feel very involved with the management of Turner for this region,” says Groves.

Key EMEA clients are the president, head of business development, head of entertainment, CNN bureau chief and the head of advertising sales. In addition, Groves’ team advises the co-president and chief financial officer of Turner’s international operation based in London, and the country managing directors in Italy, France, Germany and Spain.

Groves inherited a smooth-running machine that had managed to get by without a legal head for some time, and it is his mission to make it run even more smoothly. “I have had to study the capabilities of the team and the requirements of the team and see how best to apply its talents,” he says. “My determination is to deal with as much of everything as possible and get to know how CNN works and what’s important to them.”

Groves is not simply an administrator. From his time at Shell and Orange he gained transactional experience in such far-flung places as Guatemala and India. Nobody in the existing team had that experience. People from other parts of the group contributed expertise and external counsel were employed for the company’s many joint ventures and other corporate transactions.

Within days of Groves arriving, there were issues with a recently formed joint venture in Germany that had to be sorted out. He says that it was a great learning experience, and continued with a huge argument in Italy over editorial content. “I soon realised that this was fundamental to CNN and that it would die in a ditch to make sure that this was a properly independent news product that didn’t degrade the brand,” says Groves.

Despite being thrown in at the deep end, Groves relies on the specialist skills of his team of seven and specifically his three senior counsel Ellie Browne, Celeste Campbell-Pitt and Tony Whyte.

Browne is the entertainment specialist, dealing with the Cartoon Network, CNN, Boomerang and CNX. A lot of Browne’s work involves programme acquisition and ITC licensing issues. She has also become the group’s data protection expert. Campbell-Pitt deals with news and advertising sales contracts. The broadcasting of content on the internet and to mobile phones has also brought new regulatory issues. In the past a lot of editorial content issues were dealt with in Atlanta, but the team there are now confident that Campbell-Pitt, together with Groves, can deal with these issues.

When it comes to CNN and live news, the legal team obviously has to rely a great deal on the news team’s experience. “The news editorial team has a very good feel for what is likely to be defamatory. Recently, over the second dodgy butler, they were conscious that there was a sub judice issue and called us immediately. That’s fun for us because the response has to be immediate,” says Groves.

With a possible war with Iraq on the horizon, CNN will be doing what it does best, reporting from the front line. This will be a new experience for Groves’ team and many in Atlanta. New issues, such as the possibility of government censorship, will arise. “It’s something we anticipate,” says Campbell-Pitt. “We would work within those limitations. If any reports are censored then we would flag them up so that our viewers are aware of it.”

War has its pros and cons for CNN. Senior counsel Tony Whyte says: “After 11 September, there was a huge flurry of work because broadcasters were saying ’we need CNN’.” Whyte is the legal team’s distribution expert. Distribution contracts are core for the business and it is where the bulk of the company’s revenue comes from. The other key, of course, is advertising revenue. This will be hit by the war. There is an indirect economic impact for all companies that rely on advertising but, as Whyte explains, CNN does not show adverts during live breaking news. During wartime there will be a lot of live breaking news.

Whyte joined Turner from Denton Wilde Sapte around six years ago and the firm has a long relationship with the company. Dentons recently assisted Whyte with the renegotiation of the BSkyB contract in the UK. Dentons also handles a lot of Turner’s litigation, including some litigation involving broken contracts in Poland last year and some trademark litigation.

But despite the history, Dentons’ contact partner Nick West should not take the relationship for granted. “Our budgets are so tight, my instinct is to do absolutely everything in-house,” says Groves. The exceptions are large transactions often involving local counsel and litigation. “We know at some stage during the year we’ll have a contractual dispute and 50 per cent of the time litigation will at least be commenced,” he adds.

Groves has recently turned to Bevan Ashford for assistance with copyright infringers and is keen to review all the law firms the company uses. “We want to build up our own picture of who are the right people to support the Turner legal team,” says Groves. “I’ve got a very open mind. People here have had good, bad or indifferent experiences of working with different law firms. It’s a genuine attempt to find teams within firms that have specialist knowledge over and above ours.”

“I’m quite choosy,” he continues. “I’m very clear what I need from outside counsel. You don’t end a relationship just like that, because that law firm has knowledge of your business that can be useful, but sometimes you need to make a change to get a better service. We have a whole range of firms across Europe that we need to look at and see if we can get better.” Dentons, you have been warned.

Chris Groves
Head of Legal
Turner Broadcasting System

Statistics
Organisation Turner Broadcasting System
Sector Television
Employees 9,200 worldwide, 1,290 outside the US
Legal capability Seven in Europe
Head of legal Chris Groves
Reporting to Deputy general counsel and head of international and transactional practice groups Trish Jones
Main law firms Bevan Ashford, Denton Wilde Sapte, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (Spanish office), Heuking Kühn Lüer Wojtek (Germany), Studio Avvocati Associati a Baker & McKenzie (Italy)