In a tone more wistful than critical, Ted Turner ranged across the media and political landscape in a 25-minute speech at the HRTS lunch in Beverly Hills on Thursday.
Speaking in his trademark off-the-cuff homiletic style, the former vice chairman of AOL Time Warner came across as fondly nostalgic for his time in Hollywood rather than sore about its treatment of him.
Turner received a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame on Wednesday.
“A lot of water has gone under the bridge,” he suggested, since he last spoke to the Hollywood Radio and Television Society in 1997. That was the event in which he railed against Rupert Murdoch as a Nazi, a remark that sparked a firestorm in the press.
After touching briefly on violence in the media (he’s still fiercely opposed to the gratuitous, glamorized stuff), Turner turned to his time at the conglom. He estimated he’d lost 85% of his net worth because of the AOL debacle and hence has had to rein in his philanthropic donations over the past few years.
With hardly a trace of the rancor of old, Turner amusingly free-associated about how he was marginalized in the mega-conglom before finally moving out.
“Normally when you’re fired,” he told the packed audience, “you leave. I ended up the ghost at the end of the hall. It took me six years.”
His biggest mistake: “Not getting more guarantees from people at TW. I believed in people too much.”
Advising industryites based on the life lessons he said he’d learned in showbiz, and clearly referring to AOL, he declared, “Just because you have successes doesn’t mean you can’t have a disaster.”
To the extent that he stressed any single point more than another, Turner said he tried in vain to get Time Warner to acquire CBS or NBC back in 1996 or ’97.
“If we had, and then we would not have acquired AOL, our stock would be at $60 or $70, not $16 or $17.”
As an aside, he added, “I still think Time Warner will eventually need a network, if there are any left — right now they’re all bespoke.”
Despite the AOL fiasco, which he seemingly took quite personally, Turner insisted he had enjoyed the programming, news and movie businesses and was particularly proud to have “greenlit,” or at least given the go-ahead, to New Line to make “Lord of the Rings.”
And without taking any direct potshots, Turner seemed to intimate that newsies — even his creation CNN — may have lost their way. He had wanted, he explained, CNN to be impartial and responsible, and to address “both sides of controversial issues.” He also wanted it to be “factual, non-inflammatory and a force for good in the world.”
The more mellow Turner never went beyond these general points to actually criticize either CNN, or, as he might have done in the past, its archival Fox News. His only concrete criticism was purely political: “I didn’t like this war when it started and I don’t like it now.”
He described his early ambitions for a military career, his then-idols Lord Nelson and Alexander the Great. Today he contemplates busts of Gandhi and Martin Luther King on his desk for inspiration.
Doubling back to Hollywood, Turner praised the idealism of the town, adding that almost all his memories are fond ones. He received a standing ovation from the crowd.
One attendee said it sounded almost like a valedictory: “It’s sad. We’ll miss Ted’s passion for things. It’s too bad what happened,” referring apparently to his exit from AOL TW.
Upcoming HRTS events include a Newsmaker Luncheon April 20 with ABC newsman Ted Koppel and the org’s first-ever roast, with honoree NBC network topper Jeff Zucker, on June 9.