Turner's Lament: TBS Sale to Time Warner


Gerald Levin has reason to be happy Ted Turner doesn't own a time machine. Otherwise, the AOL Time Warner Inc. CEO might have been out of a job.

If he could do it all over again, Turner would not sell Turner Broadcasting System Inc. to Time Warner Inc., he told a Western Show audience Wednesday.

"I would have bought Time Warner four or five years ago and fired Gerry," Turner said during a taping of his oral history for a video for The Cable Center.

Turner had the audience rolling in an hour-long interview with CableFAX
founder Paul Maxwell that presented many sides of the Cable News Network and TBS creator — from sad and introspective to comical and outrageous.

Turner predicted that consolidation would leave the industry with only two super-sized MSOs and four or five programming entities. He also foresaw a win for broadcasters in the digital must-carry battle.

AT&T Corp. will be gone within two or three years, Turner predicted. If AOL Time Warner is successful in buying AT&T Broadband, Cox Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. will be forced to merge, he added.

"The game is over because, like it or not, when you own all of the real estate on the board and there's nobody left to pay rent, you win," Turner said. "All you have to do is go on the floor at the convention center today. It looks like Kosovo, or Afghanistan."

Other highlights from Turner's remarks:

  • On AOL Time Warner: "[It] doesn't have the same commitment to pro-social programming that I did. They're basically closing down serious documentaries."
  • On Levin: "He said to me, 'Ted, you're my best friend.' I said, 'Gerry, I've never even been in your home. If I'm your best friend, who's your second-best friend?' "
  • On his bison ranch: "I'm hoping that Gerry doesn't get control of that so he can fire me from that, too. I'll do everything I can to keep everything else I have out of his hands, because he's got most of what I care about right now."
  • On keeping license fees low: "We never tried, like ESPN and some of the other networks, [to] screw you to the wall. If I get 10 percent and the cable operators get 90 percent, that would be OK for me. ABC/ESPN want 50 percent — they want half your money. I just want a little bit."
  • On the early days at TBS: "We were like Christopher Columbus. When he left Spain to seek the New World, he didn't know where he was going when he left, he didn't know where he was when he got there, and he didn't know where had been when he got back."
  • On defeating the ABC and Westinghouse-owned Satellite News Channel in 1983, and buying the competitor for $25 million: "We gave them a little stipend to leave the industry. It was like Vietnam beating the United States. Nobody thought we could do it, but we did."