Billionaire Ted invests in global peace
Back in the 1980s, when Ted Turner was trying to own the professional wrestling business, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) felt threatened enough by Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to intersperse its televised bouts with short, comic sketches. Each skit would feature the same character ? a cocky, arrogant, combative man called Billionaire Ted, writes Vir Sanghvi.india Updated: Dec 17, 2005 19:46 IST
Back inthe 1980s, when Ted Turner was trying to own the professional wrestling business, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) felt threatened enough by Turner's World Championship Wrestling (WCW) to intersperse its televised bouts with short, comic sketches. Each skit would feature the same character — a cocky, arrogant, combative man called Billionaire Ted. Though Turner never retaliated in kind, the Billionaire Ted persona sums up how he was perceived in the US.
Ever since he turned his Atlanta TV station into America's first successful satellite operation (the Superstation), Turner has always been portrayed as a combative man who will go head to head with the big boys — and usually beat them. When he took on the three major networks with the launch of CNN, he sneered at wasteful TV practices ("They are going to have to give up those three-martini lunches," he predicted) and promised that CNN (dubbed the Chicken Noodle Network by its competitors) would become the world's principal source of TV news.
He kept that promise and followed it up with other breakthroughs, including Cartoon Network and the TNT movie channel. Through it all, there were other highly-publicised activities, including a passion for competitive sailing and a string of beautiful girlfriends, of whom Jane Fonda (who later became his wife) was the best-known.
But Turner was always pugnacious. He got into a long-running feud with Rupert Murdoch, whom he once challenged to a boxing match in Las Vegas ("We had a deal. Whoever won would give the prize money to his favourite charity. Which in Murdoch's case meant Murdoch," he laughs) and he still refers to him as 'dangerous'. Murdoch retaliated by pointing to Turner's manic nature and saying, "I hope he's taking his medication."
Then, when CNN seemed to be on top of the world, Turner merged it with Time-Warner, accepting stock amounting to 7 per cent of the combined company in return for his CNN holding. In the beginning, he had some say in how Time-Warner was run but after Gerald Levin took over, the management began to freeze him out. When Levin merged Time-Warner with AOL ("I don't think he meant to destroy the company but that's what he nearly did," Turner says now), Turner's holding shrunk and Levin made it apparent that he would be happier if Ted were back in Atlanta.
Today, CNN is no longer the top news network in America. That slot is occupied by Murdoch's Fox News and it is clear that Turner has strong views about the way Time-Warner ran CNN after his exit. "Fortunately, they did not do much with CNN International," he says. "But they made a lot of changes in the US feed."
Did he expect Fox to overtake CNN? "I always knew that the threat to CNN in America would come from a right-wing network," he explains. "And I even considered the idea of opening my own right-wing network in competition with CNN before somebody else did. Then I decided that I just couldn't do it."
As one of the great TV visionaries of the 20th century, does he think that we are in for major changes in this century? "Well, nobody's going to make a lot of money in the media," he replies. "I love the media. But all the money came from scarcity. There were just three networks and a few satellite channels. Now there are hundreds of satellite and cable channels. You don't need to buy a CD or a DVD because you can download anything you need from the Internet.
People don't even read newspapers that much but there are still lots of newspapers out there. I don't see how the media can remain a very profitable business in this century."
Turner himself is out of the media these days. Instead, he's focused on his work with the UN. His priority, he says, is to focus on global peace and the things that really matter.
Global peace? Can this really be Billionaire Ted?
Apparently. The way he tells it, the turning point came a few years ago when everything began to go wrong. "I had lost my company. It was clear Time-Warner didn't want me. I had lost my fortune (because the Time share was doing badly). My marriage to Jane Fonda was breaking up. My grandchild had just died. I felt that if I didn't do something, I would collapse. But then I just picked myself up and decided that I was going to do something useful. I wasn't going to let all this destroy me."
Turner's solution was to put the money that he hadn't lost when the Time share tanked — around a billion dollars or so — into the UN Foundation. The UN Charter prevents the organisation from accepting private donations, so Turner has agreed to fund individual UN agencies. He has just visited Bangladesh where the Foundation is funding projects and is due to go to Pakistan next.
In the process, he has also become something of an apostle of non-violence. This is completely at odds with his record in his early years but Turner bristles at the suggestion that there was a conversion on the road to New York — if not to Damascus. "I've never attacked anybody in my life," he says indignantly. "I may have served in the army but I never shot anybody. In fact, I now believe that if somebody attacks me, I will turn the other cheek. That's how much I believe in non-violence."
And did Jane Fonda have any role to play in this apparent change of heart? "She did," he says. "When she went to North Vietnam (to oppose her own country's role in the war), I supported the Vietnam War so I was angry. But I soon realised that she was right and I was wrong. It was a very courageous thing for her to do. And one of the things I love about her is her courage in doing the right thing. I now believe that all wars are wrong. All violence is bad. And Jane was right."
So, they are still friends?
"Yeah, we are very close friends. We may not be married any longer but she is still somebody I am very close to."
And he's read her autobiography — in which he doesn't come off as the world's most stable man? "Yeah, it's a great book," says Ted Turner, turning the other cheek.