Nothing like being a billionaire and writing a book to get yourself on television. But there seems to be more to Ted Turner, now 70 and sadly out of the American mainstream, than just clamoring for attention.
The founder of CNN and the fellow that Atlanta’s Turner Field baseball park is named after has been popping up all over television lately. I saw his “60 Minutes” interview on 11/09/08, and just finished watching him on “Good Morning America.” This coincides with his new biography, “Call Me Ted.”
But unlike other luminaries who I crossed paths with in my younger days as a sportswriter, Turner has changed very little, in both appearance and demeanor. I got a handshake and an intro to the brash one in 1977, when he unbelievably made himself manager of the Atlanta Braves to try to end the team’s losing ways. “Gotta go, Steve. Talk to you later,” he said in uniform as the trotted to the outfield as the shocked Atlanta-area media (I worked in Macon then, about 75 miles to the south) jockeyed for access.
He’s still trim, with the same Clark Gable mustache, wry grin and uncensored conversational habits, even after earning and losing billions in the rise, sale and fall of his media empire.
He smiled over comments made by Jane Fonda, his famous ex-wife, in the “60 Minutes” interview. “That’s sweet,” he said. “She’s the best wife I ever had.” Robin Roberts, the “Good Morning America” host, just chuckled and said, “We’ll leave that one alone.” A Democrat, he dissed the recent federal bailout of the financial system and feels the government is “spending too much money.”
Long documented is that Turner invented 24-hour news when he rolled out CNN in 1980. But I remember when he bought a money-losing Atlanta UHF station for $2.5 million in 1970, and began filling new WTCG programming time with reruns. In 1973, he snatched Atlanta Braves games away from rival channel WSB and, three years later, bought the Braves and began bouncing the games off satellites to viewers nationwide. Thus, the “superstation” concept was born.
He was not known as well for his ownership of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks. But he was the owner who brought famous University of Georgia alum Dominique Wilkins to the Hawks. “I’d rather be drafted by the Hawks than the U.S. Army,” he joked with reporters on draft day in 1982.
(He hasn’t mellowed in person, either. He dished strongly on President Bush and GM in a speech in Atlanta on 11/14/08.)
Since selling his company to Time Warner in 1996 and being shoved aside by company brass, he’s become America’s largest private landowner and avid environmentalist. But he’s lost none of the brash drive that got him there. For that I’m glad.