INTERNATIONAL: MEDIA OWNER PROFILE; Loose cannon or visionary, Turner wants TV’s big prize

One of the major figures in the global media world, Ted Turner is obsessed with owning a US TV network, Alasdair Reid says

One of the major figures in the global media world, Ted Turner is

obsessed with owning a US TV network, Alasdair Reid says

There are two versions of the Ted Turner story. The first is that he’s a

visionary with the ability to ‘see around corners’- the man who

diversified his family billboard business into one of the most

innovative media outfits in the world. The second is that he’s a loose

cannon, a volatile personality obsessed with owning one of the big four

US television networks - and prepared to take outrageous risks to get it

Last year, Turner told TV critics: ‘If I died tomorrow, my tombstone

would say: ‘He never got a major network’.’

What isn’t in doubt is the fact that he’s the most colourful character

in the global media game. Married to the film star, Jane Fonda, he has a

personal fortune estimated at more than pounds 2 billion, owns much of

the state of Montana, is a renowned yachtsman and owns a baseball team.

Last year was momentous for Turner, culminating in the proposed merger

of his Turner Broadcasting System with TimeWarner, creating the world’s

biggest media conglomerate, with combined revenues of dollars 19.8

billion. The cliche normally trotted out in these instances is that

there is no such thing as a merger in big business, and indeed this was

a takeover, with Time Warner, which already owned 18 per cent of TBS,

paying dollars 7.5 billion for the rest.

But this deal was different: Turner has become vice-chairman of Time

Warner, is now its biggest single shareholder, and retains full control

of TBS as an independently operated division. Wall Street analysts say

he holds all the cards.

The merger was the latest twist in what has often been a turbulent

relationship between Turner and the chairman of Time Warner, Gerald

Levin, starting with Turner’s acquisition of MGM in 1986. Having just

failed to buy the CBS network, Turner jumped at the chance to buy the

ailing studio and put together one of the biggest junk bond deals of the

80s. But soon after stumping up dollars 1.5 billion for MGM, he realised

there was no way he could carry that much debt and sold off the studio’s

assets piecemeal for a fraction of their purchase value. Still dollars 1

billion in debt, he was forced to sell 37 per cent of TBS to, among

others, Time Warner and the giant cable network operator, TCI.

They bailed him out on condition that they could veto any future deals

and Levin wasn’t slow to exercise that prerogative. Bids for Financial

News Network, Orion, MGM (again) and NBC were blocked, as was an attempt

to put together an eleventh-hour offer for CBS last year.

But Levin, too, has his problems. He oversees the product of a shotgun

marriage between the straitlaced East coast Time and the sexier Warner

operation in Hollywood. East and West have been at war from day one.

Critics also say Levin paid over the odds for TBS and that Time Warner

carries too much debt. Turner may yet mount a boardroom coup.

Meanwhile, TBS goes from strength to strength both at home and abroad,

generating revenues of more than dollars 3 billion last year. Turner’s

great insight back in 1976 was that cable was going to be big. He took

Channel 17, a local terrestrial station serving Atlanta, renamed it TBS

Superstation, put it on satellite and sold it on to cable networks

across the country. It seems obvious now, but at the time it was the

first national cable channel.

He followed that with Cable News Network in 1980, using the same

distribution method, but this time the innovation was in programming

content. Not only was CNN the first 24-hour news channel but the first

‘thematic’ channel of any sort. The broadcast establishment laughed -

but by the time the Gulf War ended, CNN had proved a point to the whole


Turner was also one of the first to realise the value of material

languishing in film studio vaults. MGM’s library was the only part of

the group he retained and he has gone on to build one of the most

valuable programming libraries in the world, creating thematic channels

to make the most of it.

TBS is also innovative when it comes to advertising sales. It has an

international barter operation that will take advertisers’ product in

exchange for airtime and is willing to seek deals on a global basis.

Brian Jacobs, the media development director of Carat International,

says: ‘It’s not just about flogging airtime - they’ll talk about how the

Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters they own might be used in

merchandising. Time Warner is also putting global multimedia packages

together for clients. It will be interesting to see how they can start

working together.’

Bedding down the TBS and Time Warner merger so that the two sides work

well together is obviously a priority for Turner, but nothing will

distract him from wanting to own one of the big four TV stations,

although it is increasingly looking a big task. Disney now owns ABC,

having recently paid dollars 19 billion to take over the Capital

Cities/ABC group. The media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, won’t sell Fox and

Westinghouse bought CBS last year.

That leaves NBC. Owned by the world’s biggest company, General Electric,

there have been rumours that the network could be available. But last

year, other rumours circulated - that General Electric was interested in

buying Time Warner. It would be the media deal to cap all deals. But, if

it happened, it would almost certainly be the end of Turner’s dream.

Turner’s global network


The 24-hour news channel, Cable News Network. Brand extensions include

CNNfn, a financial news service; CNN Airport Network and CNN

International, airing in 210 countries. CNNRadio gives news and features

to mainly US radio stations.


America’s most-watched cable channel, TBS offers a general mix of

movies, sport, comedy and children’s programmes.


In the US, TNT operates basically as TBS2, offering general

entertainment with more emphasis on classic movies. In Europe, it is a

multi-lingual classic film channel. In the Asia-Pacific, it piggy-backs

with the Cartoon Network.


TEC is one of the world’s largest film and television programmes



Includes the entire back catalogue and an active studio.


Launched in 1982 as the world’s first 24-hour cartoon channel. Now

available in multi-lingually.


New Line is America’s largest independent producer and distributor of

films, and also has home video and television acquisitions plus

production and distribution divisions.


Major independent producer for cinema and television.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus