Former cable television mogul Ted Turner ruminated about his lost opportunities and what he would do if he was running CNN today.
Ted Turner, the cable television pioneer who became one of the richest Americans, recalls the pain of losing his job at Time Warner Inc., his wife, the actress Jane Fonda, and $7 billion of his fortune.
“It was like having my heart ripped out,” Turner said yesterday in an interview in New York. The founder of Turner Broadcasting System and the 24-hour cable news channel CNN, Turner said that he has “a couple billion” dollars left, including $700 million in Treasury bills.
While contemporaries such as News Corp. Chief Executive Officer and Chairman Rupert Murdoch, Liberty Media Corp.’s John Malone and Viacom Inc.’s Sumner Redstone keep competing in the media industry, Turner says that he doesn’t have enough money to get back in the business. He now focuses on nuclear disarmament, global climate change, women’s rights, and the environment.
“I’m working on the issues that are life or death for us,” said Turner, 70, who co-chairs the Nuclear Threat Initiative along with Sam Nunn, a former Democratic Senator from Georgia. “What I’m trying to do is stay relevant.”
The CNN founder, known for provocative comments in his 40- year career, has lost none of his passion for news. He says 24- hour coverage of fighting worldwide has made war tougher for people to stomach.
“War is obsolete,” Turner said. “The last time someone surrendered was Japan and that was 60 years ago. The Afghans will never surrender. We will just get tired and come home. We’ve already given up on Iraq and there’s oil in Iraq, there’s no oil in Afghanistan.”
Turner quit the media business three years ago when he left the board of Time Warner, based in New York. The company bought Turner’s cable channels, also including TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network, in 1996, making him its largest individual shareholder. Turner lost $7 billion when Time Warner’s stock collapsed in the wake of the 2001 merger with AOL, the Internet business it is now shedding.
Discussing the growing value of cable networks in the U.S., Turner said, “I feel like a dummy.” Mocking himself, he sings, “You let the big one get away.”
Turner, who founded CNN in 1980, said that if he got his wish to run the network again, he would increase coverage of countries including China.
“If I had the money, I’d think seriously about getting control of Time Warner and getting CNN to focus on serious journalism,” Turner said in a separate interview from his eighth-floor office at Turner Enterprises Inc. in downtown Atlanta. “They’re doing a good job but they could do better.”
Time Warner’s stock dropped 60 percent in three years following the AOL merger’s completion in January 2001. Turner, once ranked among the richest Americans in the Forbes 400 list, was listed at number 196 in this year’s list, with an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion.
Before Time Warner lost so much value, Turner says he had given away much of his money. His largest gift was a $1 billion pledge in 1997 to establish the United Nations Foundation. So far, $750 million of the pledge has gone to the organization, Turner said. He said he has the rest set aside.
‘Like a Joint’
“If you were around at the time, I gave everybody a hundred thousand dollars if they came up with anything,” Turner said. “I just couldn’t hold onto it. I wanted to keep it moving. I get a dollar, I give it to you, you spend it, somebody else gets it. You know, pass it around. You know, it’s kind of like a joint — you just pass it around, light it up, you know, share with your friends.”
Turner’s Atlanta offices are filled with memorabilia from his years in media and sailing, including his 1977 America’s Cup victory aboard Courageous. Three swords sit on his coffee table; a photo with Warren Buffett hangs on a nearby wall.
Turner Enterprises owns about 2 million acres in 12 U.S. states and Argentina. More than 50,000 bison roam on parts of his land, according to the company. Some of those bison wind up in burgers and other dishes at Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain he co-founded in 2002.
Ted’s has more than 50 outlets, according to its Web site. One of the restaurants is on the ground floor of the Atlanta offices, where a sign out front reads, “Eat here and we both can live.”
Turner said he bought much of his land from energy companies. They retained the rights to oil, coal or natural gas found on the property, while he is entitled to royalties.
“My land value has gone down,” Turner said. “I’m not in a position to buy anything substantial. I will still look at anything adjacent to me.”
Turner said he has learned to live with less, yet he still bemoans the decline in his net worth.
“To drop out of that league, that was hard to do,” Turner said. “I’ve had the experience of being on top and riding the roller coaster down again, nearly to the bottom. You know, if you economize and don’t buy new airplanes or long-range jets, or that sort of thing, you can get by on a billion or two.”
Turner is actually lucky that he isn’t in charge of CNN. The landscape has changed a great deal since Ted last ran the network and it would be difficult even for him to turn around his ailing baby.