To walk away with big web, Ted needs defining turn

MEMO TO TED TURNER FROM PETER BART

CONSISTENT WITH MY POLICY of dispensing advice to those who don’t ask for it, I thought this would be a good time to shoot some ideas in your direction.

This is a unique moment of opportunity for you, Ted. You’re like a high roller who’s just walked into a casino, and the house is waiting to see whether you’ll try baccarat or maybe even a little pai gow.

In your case, of course, even more intriguing games of chance are feasible. The occasion is at hand for you to make your long-awaited play for a network and to straighten out your complex relationship with TimeWarner. People on Wall Street, and even Main Street, are eager to discover whether Ted Turner, the idiosyncratic and unpredictable Mr. Outsider, can transform himself into the disciplined Mr. Insider.

You betrayed this conflict once again, Ted, in your off-the-record remarks last week at a breakfast meeting at the Museum of Television and Radio. On the one hand, you were disarmingly candid in reiterating your determination to buy a Big Three network. At the same time, you could not resist a Turneresque barb that, if Time Warner got in your way, you might simply join forces with Edgar Bronfman Jr. and make a play for Time Warner instead.

Those of us who’ve heard you speak over the years are prepared for the fact that one of two Ted Turners may appear before the audience. Ted Turner “the suit” delivers his remarks in a sullen monotone, on one or two occasions almost nodding off in the midst of the speech. Ted Turner, the maverick, by contrast, is always animated and entertaining, espousing ideas that range from the idealistic to the nihilistic.

BUT NOW IT’S TIME TO GET REAL, TED. Talk to the hard-ass network types and investment bankers and you get the feeling that time is running out for the Turner dream. Although Disney has pulled out of the NBC sweepstakes after an active courtship, other potential suitors are lining up for the plum prize. Clearly the entire broadcast road map will be re-drawn in the coming months.

Which brings us back to the question: Where will Ted Turner end up?

Your first problem, obviously, is with a quiet, cerebral guy named Gerald Levin, who heads Time Warner and hence controls a 20% stake in your company. Observes one investment banker, “Turner is trying to natter away at Levin the way Walter Yetnikoff nattered at Larry Tisch a few years ago. Tisch finally caved in and sold CBS Music to Sony partly to shut off the Yetnikoff noise. Gerry Levin doesn’t do things like that.”

People are waiting to see if you have a viable Time Warner strategy, Ted. You could spin off TBS or TNT in a joint venture with Time Warner. You have a cupboard full of assets that could serve as the basis for other stratagems as well. Nothing will happen until you sit down with Levin and tell him, “I have a dream.” Levin admired Martin Luther King; he understands dreams.

When you’re finished with Gerry, then it’s time for Larry. The stock-for-stock swap that Barry Diller hammered out with CBS could make sense for you, too, Ted — that’s what the bankers seem to think anyway. Tisch would certainly understand the monumental savings that would accrue from the potential synergy between the CBS and CNN news establishments.

CNN could use the infusion of energy, by the way. Your news service is still an amazing organism, but why does it tend to wilt so pathetically between crises? With rising competition around the world from Rupert Murdoch, the BBC and other sources, CNN more and more reflects the need for a more robust budget and imaginative leadership.

Speaking about leadership, Ted, some of your friends and critics alike speculate on the possible reasons for your corporate “brain drain.” Every time you make a big deal, one of the architects of that deal seems to defect. If there’s one lesson that Steve Ross taught the business world it is that the boss cannot be the only person to get rich — the key people around him have to share the wealth as well.

NONE OF THIS IS TO SUGGEST that you will not continue to be the source of Great Ideas, Ted. Only you could have stormed into Kirk Kerkorian’s Swap Meet a few years back and kept negotiating and renegotiating the deal for MGM/UA until you got what you wanted — the library — and shed all the tacky properties that didn’t interest you.

Similarly, at a time when Murdoch is spreading billions of dollars around to tie up the rights to football and hockey, only you could have come up with a way of broadcasting Braves and Hawks games across the nation without paying a dime for those rights. That’s downright amazing.

Similarly, you managed to buy two thriving movie companies, New Line and Castle Rock, for a reasonable sum of money, even though you’re now living through a bunch of clunkers from the latter, normally reliable, company.

But, as I said before, the moment of truth is at hand. Ted Turner has to decide whether he is Mr. Outsider or Mr. Insider. You talked at the Museum of Television like the classic Mr. Outsider. You didn’t mention that you recently took a seat on John Malone’s TCI board, thus making you Mr. Insider.

In preparing a documentary on you, the BBC is going around asking influential people, “Is Ted Turner a genius or a crazy guy — or a little of both?”

No one expects you to answer that question head on, Ted. But if you’re going to achieve your “dream,” you’re going to have to drop a few more hints.

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