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Ted turns over a new leaf

The happiest man in New York week seemed to be Ted Turner, waving to strangers on the street, swinging jauntily through dinners and social functions with his beaming wife, Jane Fonda, at his side, and popping aphorisms at press conferences.

Why was Ted Turner being so damned cheerful? After all, here was a man who had just moved from being CEO of his own media empire to the No. 2 position at the newly merged Time Warner, the company he once claimed had “clitorized” him.

Ask Ted that question and you unleash a torrent of Turnerisms, as the New York – press discovered last week. “You only live once,” he philosophized. “I’ve always been undercapitalized. I felt it was time to put some muscle on the bones.” Shifting metaphors yet again, Turner confessed that he was impatient to “move from the basement to the penthouse.”

Besides, he didn’t really “sell” his company to Time Warner, he explained, he “merged it.” As a result, instead of owning 23% of his own enterprise he owns 10% of Time Warner. “I’m like the white knight in this venture,” he pointed out. “Larry Tisch was supposed to be a white knight at CBS, but what did he end up as? Sort of a dark horse, I guess.”

Indeed, it was a new Ted Turner on display last week. The man who used to position himself as a moody loner was suddenly transmogrified into an ebullient “team player,” singing the praises of Gerald Levin and John Malone. He faithfully recited the mantra that the new Time Warner would be open and collaborative. Like his new colleagues, he studiously avoided using the “s” word – synergy. If CNN and Time Magazine figured out new ways of working together, for example, the aim would be “to last achieve growth, not achieve efficiencies.” And certainly not to create synergies.

The clamorous press conference Friday was tailor-made to showcase the New Ted. With satellite trucks choking surrounding streets and more than 300 reporters crammed into an auditorium, the ’90s version of the celebrity mogul was on view for the world to see.

And the new Ted-and-Jerry act was firing on all cylinders, with Levin forcefully presenting the broad strokes of the giant deal and Turner embellishing with ideas and anecdotes. It was Levin who fielded questions about the US West litigation, but it was left for Turner to point to the 30 Time Warner executives arrayed before him and intone, “Talk about the Dream Team – we have the Dream Team. And while we have thousands of movies in our combined library, how many does that other Dream Team have? How about zero?”

Aphorisms aside, could anyone actually manage this new company, he was asked, or was this another media monster that would sprawl out of control?

Turner’s response: “There’s no way a Redstone or Murdoch or whoever can effectively make decisions by themselves involving companies of this size. Decisions have to be made as close to the action as possible. That’s how you get diversity of product.”

Time Warner’s mandate, he and Levin reiterated, was to invent a new “collaborative decision-making structure” that could not be strangled by bureaucracy or divisional infighting.

“We have to build a family that can make money and even have some fun,” said Levin in a raspy voice, as he and Turner proudly shook hands yet again.

As the ever-skeptical press kept firing questions, the suits seated in the four front rows looked on impassively. If Turner and Levin were truly committed to building their new “family,” then these were the uneasy children. It was fine to talk abstractly about “collaborative decision-making,” but here were the people who would have to do the collaborating.

Turf wars would have to be set aside.

“None of this is going to be easy,” one senior division chief told me after the press conference. “Sure, this company has been fractious, but people change. So do companies. Look at Ted Turner up there today – the ‘great loner’ talking about team play. If Ted can change his stripes, anyone can.”

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