AT&T, now seeking merger with Time Warner, could have been based in Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

News of AT&T acquiring Time Warner brought up all these feelings of “cudda, wudda, shudda” for Atlanta.

Not only does Time Warner own the formerly-independent Turner Broadcasting System – including CNN, which is based in Atlanta but controlled from New York.

CNN Center

CNN, part of Turner Broadcasting System – which is owned by Time Warner, has been an anchor in Atlanta since 1980. It overlooks Centennial Olympic Park, which was built for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games (Photo by Maria Saporta)

But Texas-based AT&T acquired the former Atlanta-based BellSouth Corp., a move that changed the city’s telecommunications profile forever.

In the fall of 2003, BellSouth was on the verge of buying the then-struggling AT&T, based in New Jersey at the time. The two companies had spent six months negotiating an agreement and undergoing due diligence.

The companies had agreed on a price, had decided to base the company in Atlanta and had picked the name – AT&T. They had selected a new board of directors, and they had worked out a management and succession plan with BellSouth CEO Duane Ackerman becoming AT&T’s CEO for a few years, before being succeeded by then AT&T CEO Dave Dorman.

As press releases were being written, Ackerman got cold feet and called off the deal.

So another Baby Bell company – San Antonio-based SBC – ended up buying AT&T two years later and taking its name.

Then, in March 2006, the new AT&T announced it was buying BellSouth – and Atlanta became a subsidiary city.

At the time, then Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said he would welcome a visit from AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre to talk about moving the headquarters to Atlanta. But the company later decided to move its headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas.

The biggest consolation over the years has been that the Texas-based AT&T kept the headquarters of its wireless business (once a joint venture between SBC and BellSouth) based in Atlanta.

AT&T logo

AT&T logo

BellSouth had been a strong civic player in Atlanta, and it was Ackerman who implemented the Metro Plan – an effort to move all of the company’s operations near MARTA stations. It was a corporate philosophy far ahead of its time.

Similar twists occurred with Turner Broadcasting System and Time Warner. Ted Turner had valid reasons to sell TBS to Time Warner, but he had not anticipated that the New York company would end up being acquired by AOL. That combination ended up dissolving after several years, but by that time, Turner’s influence at the company had waned.

Despite the corporate acquisitions, Atlanta has remained an important base for both AT&T and Time Warner.

The fastest segment of the telecommunications business continues to wireless and the internet of things (the ability to for appliances and other objects to have network connectivity). Those business sectors continue to be grounded in Atlanta even though their executives report to bosses in Dallas.

And Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and multiple other cable channels) – generates about 60 percent of Time Warner’s operating revenue.

Time Warner logo

Time Warner logo

But in recent years, the top executives of TBS – including Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide – have been based in New York City rather than Atlanta. Turner has nearly 2.5 million square feet in downtown and Midtown, and it still employs thousands of people in Atlanta.

Having top executives based in a city can make a big difference in how engaged companies are in civic initiatives. Phil Kent, CEO of TBS (the last top TBS executive to live in Atlanta), was instrumental in numerous efforts, including the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, the Woodruff Arts Center and the Atlanta Committee for Progress, to name a few.

If Ted Turner still owned the Atlanta Braves (Time Warner sold the team to Liberty Media), then it is unlikely the team would pulled up stakes from its home for 50 years and moved to Cobb County (remember Turner resisted pleas from within his own organization to move the Atlanta Hawks to the suburbs saying he was committed to downtown).

Now the AT&T acquisition of Time Warner, if approved by regulators, will place Atlanta yet another step away from the top executives for the TBS entities still in the city. Folks in Atlanta will report to executives in New York who in turn will report to the top bosses in Dallas.

But maybe there’s an opportunity here.

Given the importance of the Time Warner and AT&T operations that are still in Georgia, an argument could (and should) be made to move AT&T headquarters to Atlanta.

After all, it would be a way to right a wrong from 2013 when Atlanta should have become the headquarters of AT&T.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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