AngelLevin ascent at WB Net didn’t come as surprise
By Cynthia Littleton
Thursday 2 October 2003
No one who has worked closely with Jordan Levin during the past decade was surprised by the announcement this week naming him CEO of the WB Network as part of the network’s post-Jamie Kellner restructuring plan.
In many ways, Levin, 36, has embodied the WB and its youthful audience since he first arrived at the network’s Burbank ranch lot on a hot August day in 1994. He has had a hand in every one of the network’s programming success stories in the 10 years that he’s been working his way up the programming ranks.
Before the WB was on the air, Levin was part of the core launch team that envisioned what the WB brand should stand for in an ever-fragmenting, fast-changing TV landscape, even if it took them a few tries to hone that brand into the teen- and young-adult magnet that the WB has become.
"Jordan’s a lot closer to his adolescent years than most people in television," says Joss Whedon, creator/executive producer of one of the WB’s signature series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and its spinoff, "Angel." "He understands what (the WB’s) identity is because he can relate to that identity."
Now, as the network nears the 10th anniversary of its debut — Jan. 11, 1995 — Levin has been tapped along with fellow WB vet Garth Ancier to fill the shoes of WB founder Jamie Kellner, who plans to step down as chairman and CEO in May. Levin will oversee programming, marketing, distribution and other day-to-day operations as the WB’s chief executive ; Ancier will focus on long-term planning and big-picture strategy as chairman (HR 9/30).
For the industry, Levin’s ascent to the top rung of the WB heralds a generational sea-change that is sure to be felt all over town in network and studio executive suites in the near future. Levin came of age just as television was on the cusp of the multichannel revolution, meaning that he’s old enough to remember what primetime was like in the three-network era but young enough to have been entranced by MTV and Fox when they first appeared on the scene in the 1980s.
As Whedon observes : "Jordan’s a guy who came up at a network that has redefined what a network should be. He’s more than willing to take chances."
Like so many of Hollywood’s overachievers, Levin fell in love with movies and television as a kid. He would mark up his TV Guide fall preview issue with his picks of hits and misses and then check his record at the end of the season. He relished articles and books about the primetime exploits of such legendary figures as Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff and Leonard Goldenson. He used his bar mitzvah money to buy an early BetaMax player.
Levin’s senior college thesis examined "The Role of Broadcast Networks in the Evolving Television Marketplace," and his scholarly approach to the medium has served him well. It certainly distinguished him during his first interview for what was destined to be his first executive job.
"When I hired him, he was just out of school, and I thought that he had a deep love of TV and a deep intelligence, and those things very seldom go together," says Dean Valentine, the former head of UPN who brought Levin into the Walt Disney Co.’s TV department (then headed by Ancier) at a time when the studio was in rebuilding mode. "I always thought he would do well because he was really committed. It wasn’t just a game for him ; he really loved the actual medium."
Levin’s father, Bob Levin, was a top film marketing executive at Disney at the time, but Jordan was no industry brat. He grew up in Chicago and Houston, where the elder Levin worked in advertising. Bob Levin didn’t head west for Disney until his son was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin studying narrative strategies and TV and film theory.
By the time he graduated in 1989 with a bachelor of arts in radio, TV and film, Levin had worked all the connections he had to line up the Disney job. The under-new-management atmosphere that greeted him at Disney — the "Wonderful World of Disney" and "The Golden Girls" were the only shows the studio had on the air at the time — proved good training for his future work at the WB.
"It was a real startup mentality (at Disney), and I loved that," Levin recalls. But he also knew that his primary career goal was to work at a broadcast network. When Ancier left Disney to join his former Fox Broadcasting Co. boss Kellner in launching the WB in partnership with Warner Bros., Levin soon followed.
Levin wore a suit and tie on his first day at the WB. Kellner quickly took a pair of scissors to the tie and advised him, " ’Never wear a tie around here unless we’re doing something to get money,’ " Levin recalls.
Levin was one of about a dozen employees total at the WB in that summer before the network bowed, and they worked round the clock to develop four comedies for the network’s January launch with one night of programming and another batch of shows for the network’s first full season that fall.
"Working at the WB for Jordan is like being a kid in a candy store," says Susanne Daniels, who was part of the WB’s launch team and was co-entertainment president with Levin in 2000-01 before she launched her own production banner. "He’s a student of television, and he’s passionate about what he does. He loves developing TV, working with talent and nurturing writers."
But when Daniels and Levin first started at the WB, they weren’t so much buyers of programming as sellers of a nascent network that no one in town had heard of. Even the Warner Bros. imprimatur didn’t impress most of the studio and talent agency mavens, Daniels recalls.
"It was helpful that he had been a seller (at Disney)," she says. "We had to go out and sell the WB and convince people why they should be in business with us. Jordan and I were in our cars driving to the studios. The studios weren’t driving to us."
Endeavor partner Rick Rosen was among those on the receiving end of those earnest pitches from Daniels and Levin. Levin was the only choice to succeed Kellner as CEO because he truly helped build the network show by show, Rosen says.
"Jordan has earned the trust of talent and sellers," Rosen says. "He has a clear understanding of his audience, and on top of that, he has a fundamental understanding of the business and the challenges we all face. It was clear early on that he would be a Kellner protege."
Levin has earned his reputation for being good at talent relations, says Aaron Spelling, who has known his share of network executives.
"He is just so sensitive about everything," says Spelling, executive producer of the WB dramas "7th Heaven" and "Charmed." "You never get those things that you hate most as a writer and producer, a note saying ’Page 4 sucks.’ And with Jordan, you always put business aside and talk about (our) families."
Indeed, friends say Levin makes a concerted effort to keep a healthy balance between his high-pressure job and his home life with his wife of 11 years, Helen, and three young children. Levin maintains a second home in Austin and considers Houston to be his hometown.
"My background in Houston and Chicago is something that I think about on a daily basis," Levin says. "I have so many friends in Chicago and Texas that I really draw on. When you can talk to people whose everyday life is not consumed with the goings-on of Hollywood, you get a much better appreciation for the role that TV plays in everyday life."