King Ted's still mad as hell

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The Independent Online
CNN is 15 this week so its owner Ted Turner is approachable. Daniel Jeffries listens to plans for world domination

RE "Ted" Turner is 57 this year. He always said he'd be dead by the age of 50. He expected death to be violent, from an assassin's bullet. He once told his biographer, Porter Bibb, that he'd worked out what to say to his killer: "Thanks for not coming earlier."

There's still fire in his eyes. His chiselled jaw is set forward like a challenge. Today, he's alarmed about the media business: "The industry is consolidating. I don't like it. It's an absolute tragedy. We are going to end up with four or five mega companies that control everything we see on radio and television - particularly television. It's very distressing to me."

Turner can't be thinking of the man who heads Turner Broadcasting Systems, which owns CNN. CNN is celebrating it's 15th birthday this week. Where ever you go in America there's CNN. In a bar, in offices, in airports. Everybody recognises the red logo, glowing in the corner of the screen. But that's just the start. Turner's media properties are part of an elite league. Turner is modest: he doesn't mention the eight US cable networks, the five international networks, the three studios, the world's largest film library and the two major sports teams.

Ted Turner is driven. Some say by his father's suicide at the age of 53 after a long battle with manic depression. Others say it's a different legacy - he too suffers from the same complaint: it was his second wife who persuaded him to take a course of lithium in 1986.

But Turner's in no mood for such talk, or questions aboutspouse number three: Jane Fonda, aka, Hanoi Jane, the star who demonstrated against the Vietnam War (a strange partner for a confessed "Conservative liberal"), the one whose photos have taken the place of the gun his father shot himself with in his desk drawer.

Turner wants to talk about the information highway and about how he who can sell us entertainment will be king. Ted Turner enjoys being king. And it's CNN's enormous power which had given him the keys to the throne room. "The ratings at CNN are through the roof," Turner says. "We had a bad first quarter last year and boy did everybody make a big deal about it. We don't have a lot of friends in the media, but that's OK."

"Go live to Sarajevo next," shouts Mike Klein. It's 10.42 on a Friday morning, just another day at CNN Centre in Atlanta. Nato planes are bombing Serb targets in Pale and senior producer Klein is running the CNN control room. "Tell Blitzer in Washington we'll come to him in two, after Sarajevo."

Klein looks at the off-air monitors. A correspondent at the State Department, Wolf Blitzer on the White House lawn, Barbara Schmansky in Sarajevo on a satellite feed. Another monitor has the three US networks. Two have chat shows, one flaunts a soap opera. Beside them, CNN looks like grown- up TV.

"Five minutes," says Klein, the clock ticking towards 11am. "Let's get back to Sarajevo." He clicks on the anchor intercom. "Ask Schmansky if there's any fear of retaliation."

Right now heads of state are waiting for the answer. President Clinton has CNN in his bathroom. Boris Yeltsin has it in his office. Ask the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about CNN: "It's influence is astounding." Kissinger sits on the board of CBS, a company that's been hurt by CNN's reach. "If something happens, like this air strike, I'll get calls. The Chinese foreign minister, the French President. Often they say, 'Did you see, on CNN ...' They are the global town crier."

But isn't Turner a man who makes money out of disasters? After all, CNN really got moving when it was the only network to carry live pictures of the space shuttle Challenger as it exploded.

"It's the truth," says Turner. "Our ratings are higher whenever there's a disaster. But I would far rather have lower ratings and lower profits and live in a prosperous happy, kind and loving world."

Last year an article in New Republic argued that CNN was giving people unfiltered information too quickly. "What a jerk!" Turner snaps. "We are in an electronic world now. I think we are better than most. We're less showbiz."

That's been a criticism of CNN: too plain vanilla. Critics say that Turner chooses anchors who won't offend middle America. Turner rejects this. "I think of all the major television operations we are the most credible. But we still sensationalise occasionally ... we're not perfect."

Last year the news division of Turner Broadcasting System Inc had revenues of almost $670m, a 12 per cent increase on 1993. In the first quarter of this year, news division revenues are up by $32m. Most of that increase came from a 28 per cent rise in domestic advertising revenues. No other US network can boast such rapid growth. Some think Turner may one day sell CNN to fund his other projects.

"Sure, Ted might one day sell CNN," says Peter Vesey who runs CNN International, now playing to 210 countries worldwide. "But last year we spent over $450m and the bulk of that went to newsgathering. We know the criticism that CNN is too American to be a global network. Ted will spend the money to move newsgathering away from Atlanta."

When Turner started CNN he nearly went bankrupt. When he bought MGM studios in 1986 the debt he incurred became too large. He sold most of the acquisition, retaining just the library. His financial misadventures forced him into the arms of John Malone's TCI and Time Warner, America's two largest cable operators. They both own about 20 per cent each of Turner Broadcasting.

Last year Turner believed he was days away from buying NBC for around $5bn. Until Time Warner vetoed the deal. Turner was furious, threatening to sell TBS to Rupert Murdoch to spite Time Warner.

Turner is still angry. "That window of opportunity that existed a year ago, isn't open to us now," he told the National Press Club last year. "I can't even talk to GE [General Electric, which owns NBC]. They won't even talk to me until I get clearance from my handlers."

But even with the Time Warner leash, TBS is movingfast. Turner's movie studios, New Line and Castle Rock, are booming. The studios now have an 8 per cent share of the US movie business, which puts them up there with Sony. New Line produced The Mask, which last summer made $200m. Turner watchers say the movie business is his next baby. But first he has to stop everybody else's plans for global domination.

"I want to be able to play at the big game. All my life I've been on the outside," he says.

Turner still feels excluded, even with invitations to the White House. Without an over-the-air network such as NBC, TBS was not allowed to bid for the Olympics - which next year will take place in Atlanta.

"Remember the guy in that movie who told people to stick their heads out and yell, 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more'?"

Some who know him say that's how Turner's been feeling for years. Angry. So far it's produced one of the world's most powerful media companies. That's productive anger, by anybody's standards.