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TW honcho hopes ratings buy b’casters ‘peace’

Turner: S, V, L OK

Ted Turner wants to give parents their S, V and L — so long as the gesture buys the TV industry “a little peace” from lawmakers and other vocal critics.

Speaking at an industry luncheon in Beverly Hills on Friday, the Time Warner vice chairman told the crowd he isn’t opposed to modifying the industry’s much-maligned TV content ratings system to flag programs with a high level of sex, violence or strong language.

“I’m in favor of giving parents the V, S and L on the ratings — assuring that we can buy a little peace with it,” Turner said in his first address to the Hollywood Radio & Television Society in eight years.

Moving on to other contentious topics, Turner needled broadcasters for their recent efforts to slow down the industry’s long-debated conversion to digital television. Turner said Time Warner’s cable networks TBS and TNT would follow HBO’s lead in making plans to offer high-definition programming feeds in the near future.

“We’re going to offer as much (HDTV) programming as we can as quickly as we can,” said Turner. “If we do it, then ABC, NBC and CBS have to do it — they won’t want to have an inferior picture to us.”

Turner added that TBS has cleared the last hurdle to switching from a superstation to a basic cable network next year — without losing rights to Atlanta Braves games — thanks to a “generous agreement” with ESPN. TBS will make more money on subscriber fees as a basic cable network rather than a superstation, but ESPN had argued that TBS’ carriage of Braves games would cut into the value of its MLB cable rights package, which it shares with Fox.

ESPN officials could not be reached for comment at press time, but those familiar with the talks said it’s likely that TBS agreed to gradually scale back the number of games it telecasts each season. This year, TBS is expected to offer about 125 Braves games.

In other TBS news, Turner confirmed the cabler has sealed a deal for off-network rights to the ABC sitcom “The Drew Carey Show” beginning in fall 2002, when the Warner Bros.-produced series is expected to be in its fourth year in broadcast syndication.

With an audience of TV industry movers and shakers, Turner couldn’t resist taking a few jabs at his most famous verbal sparring partner, Rupert Murdoch. Turner challenged the News Corp. chairman to a pay-per-view boxing match, and also asked for a show of hands from people “who would like to see Rupert Murdoch own the (Los Angeles) Dodgers.” Few, if any, hands went up.

Closing on a personal note, the 58-year-old mogul admitted he initially thought about “riding off into the sunset” once the Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting System merger was completed.

But he changed his mind when he realized he wouldn’t know what to do with the rest of his life.

“I love this business, Turner said. “I’m like an aging NBA veteran who’s still drawing down a big salary and doesn’t have anything better to do in his life. I used to be a great starter, and now my best years are behind me … but I’m still a great cheerleader for the team. Somebody like that is still valuable, even if they’re a little over the hill.”

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