AT&T’s Hollywood Star Turn Comes With Baggage

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- AT&T Inc.’s frustrating early days in Hollywood are a reminder of an icky reality in the entertainment industry: Consensual sexual relationships can often be in exchange for getting work. While that’s not quite in the scope of the #MeToo movement — which seeks to fight sexual harassment and assault (see Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, etc.) — this kind of quid pro quo does hinder efforts to make Hollywood, and society as a whole, more equitable

Here’s what happened at AT&T: Two weeks ago, the company essentially gave Kevin Tsujihara, the head of the Warner Bros. movie division, a promotion as part of its plan to reorganize the recently acquired Time Warner assets and better integrate them within AT&T. (Tsujihara’s expanded role was also noteworthy given that the longtime leaders of the HBO and Turner units resigned amid the shake-up.) But then, on March 6, a report contended that Tsujihara had previously used his authority to help an actress with whom he was having an affair win film roles. On Monday, AT&T said he was stepping down.

Welcome to Hollywood, AT&T. 

Instances of sexual misconduct certainly aren’t unique to the movie industry, but its dynamics do foster bad behavior. Men hold most of the positions of power, with actors — especially young women — in fierce competition for roles being judged in part on physical attractiveness. Even the directors, producers and others calling the creative shots tend to be men, as this chart we published last year shows:

AT&T’s Hollywood Star Turn Comes With Baggage

Only when this changes can the entertainment industry lose some of its sordid qualities. The #MeToo movement has not only helped victims of sexual harassment feel empowered to speak out, but it also helps society look at situations like Tsujihara’s in a different light. Even though entangling work and pleasure in Hollywood may be common, it’s wrong — even if the woman involved was a willing participant. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter article exposing Tsujihara’s relationship with Charlotte Kirk reveals text messages in which the actress’s actions border on bribes, pressuring Tsujihara to get her work and reminding him that he allegedly told her he would do so during sex. 

From a public-relations standpoint, these are waters that Dallas-based AT&T — whose primary business had long been the boring world of telephone services — isn’t used to navigating. In acquiring Time Warner for $102 billion (including debt), a deal that officially cleared the last of its regulatory hurdles in February, AT&T took in roughly 25,000 more employees, most of whom work in the television and film businesses. That doesn’t include the talent that gets cast.

AT&T isn’t exactly a beacon of workplace diversity: Almost all of its senior leadership — including the CEO, CFO, division bosses and heads of human resources and investor relations — are men, except for Lori Lee, who runs its Latin America business. But the megamerger opens AT&T up to a world with a much different culture, one that is already becoming an obvious risk to a smooth merger integration. Two weeks ago the company viewed Tsujihara, who had been with Warner Bros. 25 years, crucial to that process; now he’s gone.

With all of the debt AT&T has, it can’t afford too many distractions. However, showing Tsujihara the door was the right move. It’s one tiny step in rooting out the behavior that’s long put women at a disadvantage both on screen and off.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tara Lachapelle is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., media and telecommunications. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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