Cable TV's Ted Turner: spirited skipper of CNN.
Obviously enjoying himself for the first time since the interview began, Ted Turner settled his athletic, 182-pound body comfortably into his chair at the airport lounge. "Who in history would I most like to be? That's easy. Ted Turner."
"You mean there's no one in all of history you'd rather be?"
"No. I'm in history, and I like myself. I wouldn't want to be anyone else."
In his 44 turbulent years, Robert Edward Turner III has successfully defended the Americas Cup as skipper of the yacht Courageous, he has become owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and he has been cable television's most innovative owner and enthusiastic supporter. Who would trade that to be Elvis Presley, J. Paul Getty or Julius Caesar?
Turner's approach to success has been straightforward: he came, saw and conquered. He purchased the UHF television station Channel 17, Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970. By merging the then Turner Communications Corporation with Rice Broadcasting, he gained control of the TV outlet, which became WTCG, flagship station of the Turner Communications Group. Realizing that programming there could be made available to America's millions through a cable-satellite system, Turner originated WTBS, pioneer of the superstation concept, whose signal is beamed via satellite to more TV households than any other cable station's. It is projected that by 1990 his broadcasts will bring the best in movies, sports, entertainment and news, 24 hours a day, to 81 million homes throughout the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
When Satellite News Channels first went on the air, officials of the cable-TV services predicted that they would soon put Ted Turner's rival Cable News Network out of business. But David conquered Goliath by putting a checkbook into his sling, buying out SNC for $25 million in October '83. Said a spokesman for a Nashville securities firm, "Now Turner is the only game in town."
But any alert schoolboy may already know these facts about the colorful "Captain Outrageous." Most have heard about the tempestuous temperament that garnered him the sobriquet "Terrible Ted." (He was kicked out of Brown University for setting fire to a homecoming float.) What they don't know is what the Post wanted to find out.
Post: Is it true that you bought the Braves and the Hawks for the vicarious thrill of victory now that your days of sports competition are over?
Turner: No. Actually, I was a lousy athlete. In school I fumbled around with just about everything--wrestling, boxing, football, kickball, baseball, basketball, track. But I really wasn't coordinated or fast. Besides, to do a good job at something you've got to concentrate in one area, not be a jock-of-all-trades. Sailing was something I could do.
Post: How did you come to buy the Braves?
Turner: Purely by accident. We were televising their games, and, as the rights holder, I got pretty close to the management. So when they decided to sell the team, they approached me as the logical buyer. The thought had never occurred to me.
Post: Did you buy it to make money?
Turner: Actually, owning a baseball team is a great income-distribution program. It gets very expensive.
Post: Do your athletes "carb" up at the training table?
Turner: Carb up?
Post: Eat complex carbohydrates.
Turner: I don't know. I guess they eat what they want to.
Post: What about your own diet? Do you eat a lot of red meat?
Turner: Not a lot. Mostly chicken and fish.
Post: Higher fiber?
Turner: Try to. Lots of vegetables.
Turner: I take vitamins. I try not to eat starches, don't eat desserts, try to stay away from sweets and between-meal snacks, and I brush with Crest twice a day, for God's sake.
Post: What do you want to do with your money? Reports are that you're a millionaire.
Turner: Everything's in stock in the company. I own 87 percent of it. To get the money I'd have to sell the company, and I have no intention of doing that.
Post: No, what is your favorite charity.
Turner: I don't have a favorite charity. We have been losing too much money. But I do make contributions to a number.
Post: You don't have one area that really turns you on? Like the Abused Children, multiple sclerosis or anything?
Turner: All of them. I'm also concerned about the threat of nuclear war, overpopulation, soil erosion, acid rain, endangered species, bigotry, snobbery, hatred of war, all of those things. As well as disease, hunger and lack of education. I worry about the ozone layer and oil spills....
Post: What about ridding the world of cancer?
Turner: We're giving ourselves cancer from all of the pollution and chemicals we're pumping into our environment and our foods. There's going to be a world food crisis real soon anyway. I mean if the population keeps exploding. We've got to get a grip on population control before it's too late.
Post: People accuse you of being among the Moral Majority and yet you obviously, if you're worried about population control, are not an anti-abortionist.
Turner: That's right. I've talked to Jerry Falwell about it. I said abortion isn't murder and I can prove it. He said, "How?" And I said, "Because you don't have funerals for miscarriages." That stumped him. He said, "I guess you're right." But it's not just abortion. It's got to be birth control. In other words, I'm concerned about all the problems, not just one or two. What good is it if you cure cancer and then die of starvation? What good is it to cure multiple sclerosis and have a nuclear war and kill everybody?
Post: Getting back to television, how did you happen to locate in Atlanta instead of New York or L.A., where the action is?
Turner: My dad moved the family to Georgia when I was nine years old. So in deciding on a headquarters for a new network, I chose Atlanta. The industry hooted. But I said, "Why not?" Those who watch our programs know we have a Southern-Midwest look about them. We emphasize family values a bit more. And in Atlanta it's a whole different ball game. People are friendly; they don't try to run over you with taxi cabs. It's not as crowded as New York, nor are we dying like they are out there in Los Angeles where the air is so polluted. And being in Atlanta has worked. It costs a lot less to operate there. I mean, the rent's a third as much, lunches are $30 in New York and we have a lunch down there in Atlanta for $2.50. Another thing, we're not unionized. That's the bad thing about those big networks. They have a lot of people just standing around. If you want an electric light plugged in you've got to call an electrician, and everybody has to wait for him to come and plug in the light.
Post: How does your budget compare with the Big Three networks?
Turner: When we started it was around $40 million. Today it's close to $100 million. They say the network news operators run somewhere over $200 million a year. They talk a lot about Dan Rather making $2 million a year. Big deal. I've got six guys on my baseball team that make that much. I'll bet the Braves' roster makes more than the whole CBS news team. They're better, too. Right?
Post: What has been your biggest problem in television?
Turner: Our toughest battle is not so much in the marketplace. The big broadcasters are trying to put us out of business by getting laws passed in Washington that would do just that. I spend a lot of time in Washington defending our position. I ask Congress people, "Don't you think it's good that now there's a network not quartered in New York and controlled by big liberal institutions?" Not that there's anything wrong with being a liberal. Personally, I don't know if I'm liberal or conservative, but I talk in Washington with everybody from Kennedy to Goldwater. All the congressmen seem concerned about the country and particular issues, but you can't find two people in Washington who agree about everything. And I know the presidents of the other networks. They are basically under pressure to win quickly or they'll be fired. They'll do anything to be tops in the rating race. One of them said to me, "Ted, you are forever criticizing us network people for not having any principles about what we put on the air. But I want you to know that a lot of us are very moral people in our private lives." "Whoopee!" I said. "That's what the Nazis claimed when they went home at night from their work in the gas chambers."
Post: Even with your budget approaching $100 million a year, we understand you still want to get into higher-budget programs.
Turner: That's right. We are doing a $1 million, one-half program on the Mississippi. And Jacques Cousteau just finished a $6 million program on the Amazon that we will run this year. I would like to do more of this type of programming. Also top-quality movies. We now have over 4,000 under contract. All good entertainment and, hopefully, of some educational value as well. I wouldn't get into movies like The Godfather.
Post: What would you like most to see happen in your lifetime?
Turner: Before I pass away I'd like to see the swords beaten into plow-shares. I'd like to see a world where all the nations treated each other with respect and dignity rather than trying to blow their brains out. I think the biggest problem is the two mightiest nations on earth spending their resources in this ridiculous arms race when we're not even natural enemies. We've never fought a war with the Russians, we've were neighboring states having a common border. If we are going to fight, let us fight with our neighbors. They're the people we know and we know we don't like. And we can fight with them just by honking the horn or throwing an empty beer bottle in their yard at night when we drive past.
Post: You would then paint the future gray rather than rosy?
Turner: I think we are rapidly going helter-skelter toward extinction. We're paving over our best farmland, we're not practicing good soil conservation, we're using all the fossil fuels at breakneck speed and we"ve got a population that continues to explode. Our government and our society are thinking two and three years ahead at most when they should be thinking ahead two or three hundred years.
Post: How would you control population?
Turner: The United States is doing a pretty good job of it. But China, South America, Central America and Mexico are doing virtually nothing. Their population doubles every 20 years. They'll soon be taking our country away from us. Before 1990 there'll be more Mexicans in Texas, California and Arizona then there are Americans. What we should do is build an iron curtain down there, or they'll be taking the border states back. ...
Post: About curbing the population in these countries--
Turner: What we should be doing is pumping birth-control devices and lots of education into them. One of our nuclear submarines costs $3 billion. That would be enough to fund the program for the whole world for five years. In the meantime the program for the whole world for five years. In the meantime the people are all going to be starving and having civil unrest. The governments are in the process of collapsing. You know, El Salvador, Nicaragua. . . we set a terrible example for these little emerging countries. They think because we're spending our money and effort on jet planes and tanks that they have to have them, too. But they really can't afford them. I mean, starving nations in Africa are taxing their people to buy tanks and machine guns and mortars to blow each other up. These guys used to fight with spears and bows and arrows. And at least they weren't wrecking the ecology. You can kill people just as well with spears, if that's all the other guy has. It's much more colorful, too. And much easier to cover with TV cameras.
Post: What about the future of our own society?
Turner: You can have a free nation only if the majority of the people are intelligent enough to vote to preserve their freedom. You just can't go out as we are doing at the present time and continue to vote yourself benefits that the society can't pay for. You can't keep operating at the deficits that we are piling up. You can't have 10 percent of your population unemployed and expect to be around very long before you have a revolution. Prior to Great Britain and the United States, the longest democracy that ever lasted was in Athens, Greece, which our government was patterned after, and it failed after 50 years.
Post: Are you for gun control?
Turner: No, I'm not. I have a small arsenal myself because I hunt. I don't think outlawing guns is the answer. i think we should outlaw their use on each other. I'm not against guns for armies. Single-shot rifles. I'm against bombs and nuclear arms. I think it's crazy to drop bombs on cities. I believe the wars should be fought between soldiers out in the field. Like at Waterloo and gettysburg, where you just go out and knock around.
Post: For all your accomplishments, are you still reaching for something? Is there something you would still like to do?
Turner: Yeah, I'd like to take over one of the networks at some point and maybe get more involved in program production. Motion-picture production, maybe.
Post: You're a creative person. What about writing?
Turner: I wrote in school, but I wasn't a great writer. Writing is very tedious and takes a lot of time and patience. My whole life has been geared to action. I used to paint, and I wrote a little poetry. But I just don't have time anymore.
Post: Your work, then, is your hobby.
Turner: Right. But I do spend a good deal of time outdoors. Hunting and fishing, mainly, just to relax and get some exercise.
Post: One more question--we know you have a plane to catch. What have you done that makes you proud of yourself--or what do you think you have accomplished for the good of mankind?
Turner: Well, I'm only 44.1 think I'm just getting started.
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|Title Annotation:||Cable Network News|
|Author:||Stoddard, Maynard Good|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1984|
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