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Frustrated maven

Turner chews out congloms at NATPE sesh

This article was updated on Jan. 27, 2005.

LAS VEGAS — Alternately wisecracking and whimsical, Ted Turner took several potshots at media consolidation but largely spared his old colleagues at Time Warner during the opening keynote session at NATPE Tuesday morning.

The maverick mogul told some 750 delegates that the concentration of media might in the hands of five congloms have made it well-nigh impossible to break into the business — and, even more perniciously, made the news operations of such companies less critical of government.

Almost as an afterthought, Turner then termed Fox News, CNN’s major rival, as “a propaganda voice” of the government, just as the Nazi propaganda machine was controlled by Hitler. Some years ago, Turner referred to Rupert Murdoch himself as a Hitler, but he made no personal references to the Fox chairman this time.

Later on, Turner responded to a question about Fox News beating CNN in the ratings by saying, “Just because you’re bigger doesn’t make you better.”

But describing himself as “phased out” of the biz, the CNN founder came across as more resigned than riled up. Feisty he was not.

Given war and environmental degradation, he pointed out, there’s a tremendous responsibility in running these operations.

“We need to be very well informed. We need less Hollywood news and a little more hard news,” Turner said in an opening 10-minute address. That young people get much of their news from such sources as Jon Stewart on Comedy Central was, in his view, “frightening.”

For Turner, the issue of media consolidation is in his “top five” list of global problems.

Responding to questions from former CNN news anchor Bernard Shaw, Turner reiterated that he was “against the formation of these giant companies,” including in retrospect the merger between Time Warner and AOL, and said that voting for it was his “craziest” business mistake.

Asked by Shaw what he would do were he to find himself in a sauna with former AOL TW chairman Gerald Levin, the architect of the merger, Turner merely quipped, “I forgave Russia for despotic communism, so I can forgive Jerry Levin.”

Coming across as more rueful than wrathful, the 66-year-old cable pioneer advised a couple of questioners from the audience to take their greatest risks while they were young, as, to his mind, there’s nothing worse than an older guy who used to be rich. “That’s why I started that restaurant business,” he added, referring to his chain of grills that specialize in bison burgers.

To another query from a young cable aspirant, Turner opined that consolidation had made it “virtually impossible” to start up a service — “they own 90% of the business” — so “I’d go into the restaurant biz, or go work for a salary for those jerks.”

Of Turner’s keynote, a Fox News spokesperson said: “Ted is understandably bitter having lost his ratings, his network and now his mind — we wish him well.”

Meanwhile, in kicking off the 42nd NATPE convention, the org’s prexy-CEO, Rick Feldman, unveiled an initiative to help local stations deal with indecency issues.

Together with the Annenberg School for Communication at USC, NATPE will host a symposium this spring in Los Angeles to come up with solutions that will both safeguard consumers and allow creativity to flourish.

“The uncertainty over the regulatory landscape,” Feldman told NATPE delegates, has led to “a chilling atmosphere.”