Ted Turner’s Superstation TBS marked the start of basic cable, and he pioneered made-for-basic-cable programming. His TBS-Atlanta Braves synergy rewrote the rules of sports broadcasting. His CNN was the first 24-hour news channel, which made TV history in 1991 by broadcasting from behind enemy lines in Iraq. That might seem enough for one lifetime, but Sept. 18 also marks the 15th anniversary of his $1 billion pledge to the U.N. Turner sat down on the porch of his Bozeman, Mont., ranch to talk with Tim Gray about what the U.N. Foundation has done since then, about showbiz — and about the future of the planet.
Tim Gray: With your 1997 pledge, you put philanthropy on a huge scale.
Ted Turner: That’s where it belongs. I could give $10 for a bed net and be doing some good. But at the Waldorf-Astoria, with people from around the world, it needed to be a big gift. It had to be an eye-opener.
TG: You gave away one-third of your personal assets. Is that a benchmark for others?
TT: It depends on your circumstances and what you want to give. It’s an individual decision.
TG: Many people in showbiz write checks, but they could be doing more.
TT: Everybody could be doing more! Nobody’s doing enough. I could be doing more!
TG: People in showbiz have a spotlight. Do they have a responsibility for content with a message, like your “Captain Planet” toon series?
TT: I didn’t feel like it was an obligation. I felt it was a privilege. I had all these cartoons (MGM, WB, Hanna-Barbera works acquired via library purchases) and I said of all these, there’s not a single one about the environment. There haven’t been many movies made about the environment. (The Turner cable stations) did a lot of environmental programming by Cousteau, National Geographic, and we did “The World of Audubon.” We had more environmental program than anybody.
TG: Thousands of movies have been made, but only a few have directly addressed overpopulation.
TT: We need to be planning for our children’s future. We don’t want to leave them in an impoverished world. People say, “We’ve got enough natural gas for 100 years.” 100 years? That’s nothing! What do we have for a thousand years? We won’t have any fossil fuel at the current rate; we’re not going to have any steel. We’re running out of everything. We’re like a rich kid who inherited his father’s fortune and is running through it, buying yachts on the Mediterranean. How many stories can you think of where we’re preparing for the future? And if it’s not coming out of the entertainment business and the information business (i.e., the news media), where else is it going to come from?
TG: Were those your goals when you pledged $1 billion?
TT: I had prepared my acceptance remarks (for the U.N. Man of the Year honor). I was ripped apart by the knowledge that the U.S. owed the U.N. a billion. I thought, ‘Why don’t I give them some money?’ Nobody had ever given them a billion. I didn’t know that until later. But the U.N. could not receive money from individuals or corporations. Did you know that? Nobody’d ever tried to give the U.N. money. So I thought “God doesn’t want me to give away that billion!” (laughs) And I’d really worked hard for it! I was gonna buy CBS or something. I was going to do like all the other moguls do, just keep buying things. And what do you do when you buy them? You make more money and buy something else. I was doing that, I was buying a lot of things.
I went to bed thinking I wasn’t going to (make the donation). And I didn’t feel good. Then I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, “Why don’t I create a foundation that works alongside the U.N.?” If the Foundation did only Nothing But Nets (see stories, pages 8-9), it would be worthwhile. But it does so much more.
For example, the Girl Up program is extremely important. Half of the women in the world don’t have equal rights with men, and there’s no excuse for that any more. Women have been pushed around enough.
TG: With its varied programs, the U.N. Foundation has distributed $1.8 billion in 15 years.
TT: During that time, I also gave close to $600 million to the nuclear threat initiative and most of the environmental causes. I’ve got a new bumper sticker coming out. The old one said, “Save the Humans,” you know, like “Save the Whale” or “Save the Wolf.” This one says, “Save Everything.”
Between our nuclear weapons and our overpopulation, we’re headed for, if not extinction, then very close to it. We know better. We don’t have any excuses.
So we’ve done some good. The problem is, we haven’t done enough good. We need to act quickly enough to save ourselves. But it’s not too late — I hope.
TG: In your 2008 autobiography “Call Me Ted,” you list your priorities as the environment, nuclear disarmament and overpopulation.
TT: When I was born in 1938, the world population was 2 billion. Now it’s 7 billion — 3 1/2 times the population in the lifetime of one person. It’s crazy. Out of those 7 billion, 2 billion are undernourished.
And we have to get rid of nuclear weapons. Sooner or later something is going to go wrong. The only way we’ll get rid of them is for everybody to get rid of them. Remember, just because somebody’s our enemy today, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be our enemy tomorrow. Look at Japan and Germany. They were our enemies just 50 years ago, and now they’re our best friends.
The United Nations is (the) one place in the world where everybody can go and be together. It’s a place where people can air their grievances and ask for help. If people will listen to you, if they just listen respectfully, you are halfway to defusing the problem.
TG: At the U.N. Foundation, only 10% goes to overhead, with 90% going to the cause. That’s a strong percentage.
TT: Everybody at UNF is great. We’re just good buddies doing everything we can to help the U.N., but not get in their way. We try to help in any way we can.
TG: When you made your donation, you said you were putting others on notice to also contribute.
TT (shrugs): I just said that once.
TG: Have people stepped up?
TT: Yes, a lot of them have. The Giving Pledge that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have put together. We’re having meetings. I’m a member of it. They’re trying to encourage people to give half of their money away, when they die, if not before. And they’ve got about 80 people signed up. And they’re trying to go global with it. There are a lot of encouraging things going on, particularly in that area.
TG: Back to entertainment industry.
TG: Why “aw”?
TT: I was in the entertainment industry.
TG: You changed the entertainment industry!
TT: (grins) I was good for the entertainment industry.
There are a lot of people in the entertainment industry who have good hearts. A lot of good people. Alan Horn. I’m glad he went to Disney. That was a sad thing (when he left Warner Bros.). That was my old company! What the hell did they let Alan go for?
You saw me sigh because I got squeezed out of the entertainment business and the information business. And I thought it was a loss for me, because I enjoyed trying to make things better. That’s mainly what I did.
If I’d been running CNN, it would have stayed more with international news coverage than it has today. It would have stuck with more serious news. Be damned with ratings! Biggest isn’t always best. Best is what’s best. That’s a judgment, but judgment is what we have brains for. The thing that makes us human beings is our ability to judge. Otherwise we might as well be monkeys.
TG: You’ve done so much, but there’s still a lot to be done. Do you ever feel overwhelmed?
TT: When I was with Captain (Jacques) Cousteau many years ago on the Amazon, on the Calypso, it was just after Reagan called the Soviet Union “the Evil Empire.” That discouraged me, because I had been working so hard to help bring the Cold War to an end, and I said, “Captain, at times like this, I get discouraged” and he said, “Ted, let me tell you something. Even if we knew for sure we were going to lose, which we don’t — what else would men of good conscience do, but do their best to the very end, keep fighting to the very end?” I said, “Sounds good to me, Captain!”
And every time I get discouraged, I remember that and I stand with the Captain. And that’s why we’re going to win. We’re going to win because we can’t afford to lose. And if we lose, we’ll go down fighting. We can’t lower the flag. We won’t surrender.