From a planet to a satellite - Media - News - The Independent

From a planet to a satellite

It took CNN founder Ted Turner 35 years to build up his media empire and he did things his way - blunt, brash and bossy. Now a merger with Time Warner leaves him second-in-command. Can he handle it? By Meg Carter

Ted Turner is not a man known for holding his tongue. One of his favourite pastimes is speaking out - on almost any topic, although one of his favourites is Rupert Murdoch, whom he recently described as a "scumbag" and likened to Hitler. Nor is he your average corporate suit: he is rash, brash and baffling as he enters a room talking and leaves it again still in mid-flow. No wonder he's set other tongues wagging after merging his business, Turner Broadcasting System, into Time Warner where he now sits as second in command. By all accounts, it's an uneasy match.

Just how can someone who's been his own boss for the past 35 years start taking orders from someone else - in this case, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin? Both sides were maintaining a discreet silence on this, publicly endorsing each other just a week ago at World Report, an international TV journalists' conference run by CNN - Ted's global news network. "We're doing fine," he says in his distinctive Southern drawl. "There are always problems when you get married, right? But if you have a good attitude and you want to be married - and we are ... When I was chairman of Turner Broadcasting I tried to be the best chairman I could. And now I'm trying to be the best vice-chairman I can. It's a big difference."

He's not joking. Ted built up TBS over decades, founding his empire on the ashes of his father's billboard advertising business in Atlanta. Turner Snr committed suicide when Ted was 24, but not before selling the company which was on the point of collapse - a situation his playboy son was not expected to retrieve.

Driven to prove his worth, Ted transformed himself into a business dynamo. He won back the Atlanta business and, in 1968, bought a bankrupt radio station in neighbouring Chattanooga. Two years later, he moved into TV, purchasing the Atlanta station Channel 17. In the mid-Seventies, he invented the "Superstation" - a single station transmitted to cable systems throughout the US via satellite. In the Eighties he launched CNN, which initially lost him $1m a week and was dubbed Chicken Noodle Network after a series of on-air blunders.

In 1986, Ted almost went bust when he borrowed heavily to buy MGM - he had to be rescued by a consortium of cable operators, including future partner Time Warner. Finally, he pulled CNN into profit and set about launching the channel internationally along with the entertainment channels TNT and Cartoon Network.

He is driven, he grandly declares, by a belief in the individual's right to know. "I've tried to make wars look bad on CNN. Local media try to make wars very patriotic," he explains. "During the Cold War, all we ever saw was views from Red Square on May Day with tanks rolling by." Give people the information, is his creed. And if they don't make "the right choices", then that's up to them. The same philosophy shapes his international ambitions. While Murdoch wants to dominate the world, Turner says he aims to unite it.

Ted has a vision, you see, and it has won him a loyal following from his staff. Visit his headquarters in Atlanta and you'll hear repeated references to "the Turner family". Not just because Ted and his wife, Jane Fonda, spend one week of every month in a 15th-floor penthouse atop CNN tower. Or because the health-obsessed pair now require all TBS staff to sign a no-smoking pledge. But because of the indelible mark he leaves in his wake.

A tour of the concrete bunker that is CNN Centre tells the story. The building, which includes an adjoining hotel (also Turner-owned), is a former children's amusement park. "Ted bought it 10 years ago and has brought the neighbourhood back to life," enthuses CNN executive vice president Eason Jordan. Upstairs he points to CNN's high-tech news centre. Downstairs are shops selling Turner merchandise - from his TV channels and sports teams which include the Atlanta Braves, a local baseball team. The Braves now reside in the stadium built for last year's Olympic Games which has since been renamed: Turner Field.

Aside from owning his own teams, Turner also set up an alternative Olympics, the Goodwill Games. "He wanted to do something good for the world - to take the politics out of sports where previously there had been boycotts," gushes Michael Shapiro, vice-president of business affairs for Turner Sports. "Ted was willing to go out on a limb on this principle ... Ted really believes in the humanitarian goal."

Pat Mitchell, president of Time Inc-Turner Original Productions, adds that his commitment to factual programmes goes beyond advertising and ratings. "It's the contribution to making a difference in this world," she insists.

Ted certainly has the capacity to tell it like it is. He has an obvious penchant for homespun platitudes. "There's only one race: the human race," Turner told World Report delegates. Not everyone was convinced by this cut-the-crap logic. "All bluster and little substance," one broadcast rival caustically observes, adding that the same could easily be said about Ted's global news network.

Strange bedfellows, then, this Southern maverick and his new boss Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin, a former attorney born in Philadelphia. While Ted courts publicity and relishes a gamble, Gerry is taciturn and cautious. While TBS has always been a business united behind a single vision (Ted's), Time Warner was already an uneasy marriage between formerly separate East and West coast businesses - a collection of hostile fiefdoms, is how one associate describes it.

Under the new regime, both TBS and Time Warner's businesses have been restructured. TBS's former home-video, theatrical, licensing and merchandising activities are now run by Time Warner, leaving Turner to focus on domestic and international cable and pay-TV.

Ted is now overseeing a new strategy of regionalisation - devolving much management away from the US to regional centres. CNN International has spawned CNN en Espanol in South America and will shortly launch CNN Asia and CNN Europe. "Meeting market demand", is the company's rationale. Others suggest it's more to do with commercial expediency: with increased competition for cable and satellite carriage, locally relevant content gets preference.

Ask Turner about life since the merger, and his response is uncharacteristically elusive. He talks wearily of "trying to create a new spirit of co-operation and cohesiveness" in the company. "Gerry Levin has the main responsibility, and I've had a lot of action in my life - and a lot of wear and tear. I look good, but I've got a lot of blows to the body. Like a fighter who's been hit a lot - OK, but a little tired inside."

Don't be deceived. Ted's still fighting. In January he grabbed Michael, Space Jam and Mars Attacks! for his TNT and TBS cable networks - cable TV usually buys movies eight to 12 years after their theatrical release. Once, he yearned to run his own broadcast network. Now he's preparing to take on ABC, CBS and NBC head on. And CBS and NBC, who are not yet affiliated with a Hollywood studio, are nervous.

Does Ted want to retreat to one of his ranches, raise buffalo and save the world with his lovely wife, Jane Fonda? Or would he rather oust Levin in a bloody boardroom coup? No one's quite sure, but the ball appears to be in his courtn

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