Ted Turner will be hundreds of millions of dollars richer, at least on paper, if his company is acquired this week by Time Warner Inc., as many observers now expect. But those who know Turner best say he does not intend to retire to his ranch in Montana with Jane Fonda once the proposed deal is done.
“Ted expects to play a major role in the future at Time Warner,” said one executive who is close to him. “He’s not doing this deal to cash out or play a role in title only. He feels that this is the best way to protect the assets of his company in today’s mega-merger environment, and he’s excited about the combined programming and financial resources” that would be possible in a Time Warner that owns Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
It remains to be seen how Turner, 56--who has never worked for anyone--will fit into the Time Warner corporate culture. But sources close to Turner say that contrary to some current theorizing by Wall Street analysts and others, Turner is not going into the deal plotting with Tele-Communications Inc. President John Malone to take over for Gerald Levin, the current Time Warner chairman. Turner is expected to be named vice chairman of Time Warner in a proposal that both sides expect to present to their boards this week.
“Ted is not a schemer,” said one executive, “and that is not his plan going in. If things work out well and the culture allows Ted to be Ted, he conceivably could end up running Time Warner one day. But this is not a Machiavellian scheme to get rid of Gerry Levin.”
Still, Turner’s public persona--plus the fact that he and Malone will be the largest individual shareholders in the new company--certainly will make them forces to be reckoned with if there are disagreements about the direction of the company.
Sources have said that Levin, Turner and Malone agree on the major points in the proposed $8-billion merger of Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner. Board approvals and announcement of the deal had been expected early this week, but sources now say the deal may be pushed back to the end of the week. One source said, “The documentation of this deal is taking longer than anyone expected.”
Time Warner owns about 20% of Turner Broadcasting, and the company has opposed Turner’s efforts to buy a TV network at key points in the past. But, after making considerable investments in buying cable systems, Levin recently aimed at the content side of the business, deciding to move toward a purchase of Turner to create the largest entertainment company in the world.
Turner has been frustrated in recent years in his efforts to expand his company’s scope. He has tried to buy CBS, and within the last year negotiated for a merger with NBC’s parent company, General Electric Co., in talks that broke down over the issue of who would control the company.
“After Disney-Cap Cities, I think Ted felt that his company needed to grow to survive in the future,” one executive said. “He likes to win--and I think he views the Time Warner deal as his best way to do that globally.”
According to those close to him, he recognizes that making the deal with Time Warner could foreclose his dream of owning a broadcast network. “Ted has said that it’s going to say on his tombstone, ‘He never got his network,’ ” one source said.
While the soft-spoken, methodical Levin has opposed Turner’s dreams as the head of Time Warner, sources who know both men say they are working well together on the proposed acquisition.
“They’re both pioneers in cable TV, and they’ve known each other a long time,” said one source who knows both executives. “And, for their own reasons, they both need to do this deal.”
Turner’s Cable News Network reaches 60 million viewers in the United States and is available to millions more abroad. The Cartoon Network is also expanding internationally, and the developing international markets for the combined Warner Bros. and Turner MGM movie libraries promise great financial reward. There could also be some synergies between CNN and Time Warner publishing, including Time magazine.
Sources close to Turner note his longstanding interest in the movie business. In addition to the MGM library, Turner bought Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema, and he has used his TNT cable network to create movies and miniseries dealing with Native Americans, the environment and other issues he has a personal interest in.
“Ted has always been fascinated by the movie business--he hated to sell the MGM studio several years ago,” one source said. “He talks a lot about using entertainment programming to help solve the world’s problems. I bet he’s got a few ‘message’ theatrical films he’d like to get made.”
According to the merger proposal, Turner, who spends time at his Montana ranch as well as at the Atlanta headquarters of Turner Broadcasting, would have an office at Time Warner headquarters in New York if this deal goes through.
“He’s not going to be there day to day,” said one source, “but he’s not in Atlanta all the time, and it’s a mistake for people to deduce from that that Ted is not involved in everything we do--he’s involved.”
If the deal goes through, those who know both Turner and Time Warner say, the key question for Turner’s future will be the fit between his personality and the Time Warner culture.
“This has the chance of being a great deal for both companies,” one observer said. “Hopefully, Time Warner will use Ted’s energy and capacity for innovation. One thing’s for sure: He’s not going to turn into a ‘suit.’ ”
Times staff writer Sallie Hofmeister contributed to this report.