Ted Turner Biographer: 'John Malone...Speaks for Ted Turner'
In a rare Q&A, the author, whose relationship with CNN's founder spans 48 years, describes his bond with CNN's most powerful critic and his opposition to 'what Zucker did with CNN'
Note: This is an abridged version of The Optionist, an Ankler Media newsletter about available intellectual property currently available for free in its beta period. The comments from Porter Bibb, author of 1993’s best-selling Ted Turner: It Ain't As Easy as It Looks (Crown), seemed newsworthy to share given the current events unfolding with CNN, the imminent merger of its parent company, WarnerMedia, with Discovery, and Turner’s relationship with John Malone, the majority shareholder in Discovery and a vocal critic of CNN. In an era of MBA executives, caution and fear, the conversation is also a powerful reminder about the influence of one of the most colorful, daring and extraordinary figures to shape American media. Andy Lewis, writer of The Optionist, interviewed Bibb on February 17th.
Q&A: Ted Turner Biographer Porter Bibb
Warning:This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation. Some might find it disturbing. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call a suicide prevention hotline. In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-TALK (8255), or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7.
Ted Turner’s life — his father’s suicide, winning the America’s Cup, turning a rinky-dink Atlanta station at the end of the dial into a media powerhouse, his marriage to Jane Fonda — is the raw material for a great TV series. The book was optioned years ago to a couple of Turner executives, but rights eventually reverted to Bibb. A few others have kicked the tires, including Oliver Stone. But as Bibb explains, he’s feeling a new eagerness to see something come to screen both because of the timeliness of the story and Turner’s declining health (Turner is 83 with a debilitating condition).
Porter Bibb was Rolling Stone’s first publisher where he recruited high school buddy Hunter Thompson to write for Jann Wenner’s publication; earlier while at Yale, a student across the hall in his dorm dated a Vassar girl named Jane Fonda — meaning he met Fonda years before Turner did (“we used to throw her out of the bathroom!”). He also once was Newsweek’s White House correspondent. Now he’s an investment banker (at Mediatech Capital Partners) specializing in media deals for 40 years.
Q. How did you end up writing Turner’s biography?
I sold CBS on the idea of a primetime special on the America's Cup, the greatest yacht race in the world. I spent the summer of 1974 in Newport filming. And I focus on this guy, Ted Turner. The people who were running the America's Cup did not like him. They gave him a metal hulled boat. They said, ‘Here's something new we've come up with. Let's see if you can do anything with it.’ And of course he couldn't because it was too heavy. In the middle of the trials, he took a blow torch and personally took about 18 inches off the stern. Of course, they threw him out after that, but he came back four years later and won the America's Cup. He was so popular and such a good sailor that all the best crews in the country wanted to go with him. I made those films and they were the lowest-rated primetime television shows CBS had ever had. Roll the clock forward to 1990. I was amazed that with all the things that Turner had done and that no one had written his story. I went to Atlanta and said, ‘I’m doing this biography. I’m not gonna ask your permission because I don't want it to be authorized, but I just wanted you to be aware.’ And he said, ‘Bugger off Porter because I've taken a million dollar advance from Simon and Schuster to write my own story.’ I laughed. ‘Ted you and I both know that you’ll never put pen to paper.’ Simon and Schuster ended up suing him to get their million dollars back because he didn't ever start. He told me, ‘I’m gonna fire anybody you talk to who works for me.’ But I interviewed 222 people who worked for Turner plus two of his three wives and all his kids. When the book came out Ted brought 500 copies and sent them out as Christmas presents.
Q. What makes you eager to see a Turner biopic now?
Ted has Lewy Body Syndrome — the same irreversible brain disease that Robin Williams had and he ended up killing himself. I thought this is the same thing that could happen to Ted. Ted's famous for carrying a silver pistol that his dad committed suicide with. He's packed it all his life. If he loses his brain I'm sure that he will follow Robin Williams so I thought, it's time to get something made.
Q. What are some things you’d want to see in a Turner story on screen?
I call him the first honest billionaire because he gave a billion dollars to the United Nations to initially pay the dues the U.S. owed and hadn't paid for more than a decade. He really created the Giving Pledge that Gates and Buffet have taken up. He is the largest landowner in the United States — well second now to John Malone — and he's deeded all of it to the Nature Conservancy. He’s the greatest ocean racing sailor in history. You’ve got CNN and he also created the first satellite television station. One of the most extraordinary things he did, which almost nobody remembers, is after the U.S. pulled out of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, he created his own Olympics in Moscow — the Goodwill Games — which was a huge financial and sporting success. He bought the Atlanta Braves and took them from last place to the World Series. He used to say he paid a dollar for the Braves because — no one will believe this, but it's absolutely true — nobody had been taking the cash out of the safe from the concession stands for about 10 years in the stadium. He opened it up and found enough money to recoup the purchase price (of $12 million).
Q. What is Ted like as a person?
He is the most competitive individual I've ever met. They call him ‘The Mouth of the South.’ He's very garrulous. He dominates any room he walks into. He doesn't have a lot of friends. He has a photographic memory — in trans-Atlantic sailboat races he’d take the wheel all day and all night reciting Shakespeare and other classics to the crew from memory. I call him the first honest billionaire, because he has never hurt anybody. He's made money for anybody who's worked with him. When he bought New Line Cinema, the head who was a friend of mine called me up, ‘Ted’s invited me out to one of his ranches to talk about buying my company. I need to know how to deal with him.’ I said, ‘You can't deal with him. He will tell you what's gonna happen. And you will do it because it's usually a fair proposal.’ I've never met anybody who said, ‘I can't stand the guy.’ They all find him very compelling.
Q. What does Turner think about CNN now?
I have not spoken to him [recently], because candidly he cannot really carry on a conversation. His brain is starting to go. But he’s been adamantly [against] what Zucker did with CNN, turning it into an opinion network, to compete with Fox and losing the concept of hard news 24/7 was wrong.
Q. He’d agree with John Malone (who suggested CNN emphasize hard news)?
They’re buddies, even though Malone (the single-largest shareholder in Discovery, which is merging with CNN’s parent WarnerMedia) basically beat him into the ground when he came up short on trying to buy the MGM film library. But they became very close after that. John Malone is not only speaking his own opinion of what CNN should be doing as an all-news network, but he speaks for Ted.
Q. What would Ted make of streaming as a business opportunity?
He would definitely relish the opportunity if he were 40 years younger.
Q. What streaming news needs is an innovator like Ted Turner, the kind of person who gambled on cable news and won, to figure it out?
It would have to be interactive. I think that AR and the metaverse is going to revolutionize streaming, especially in news, because you're gonna be able to be there on the streets in Kiev, for example. I have no idea whether Zucker had the brains or the foresight to go beyond just taking what it is now and streaming it. I can't understand what he was doing with Chris Wallace and some of the other people that he was planning on hiring to be on the CNN streamer.
Q. Did anyone at CNN ever reach out to him?
No. He was sidelined by Jerry Levin, the head of Time Warner. Jerry called Ted at 2:30 AM on the morning of the AOL deal (in 2000). That was the first that Ted heard of it and he was on the board and was the largest shareholder at the time. It was the worst business deal in the world for Ted. He had over $20 billion net worth before AOL. Once that deal dissolved, Ted's wealth shrank by more than 50 percent. After that he became known as a hostile shareholder. Levin and company took away his number one parking space at Turner Field. They said, ‘Ted, your son Ted Jr. is getting paid too much. You're not using him.’ Nobody including Zucker today had any time of day for Ted Turner or any of his ideas. He just grew increasingly critical of the fact that they were not an all news network anymore.
Q. Do you think the culture of CNN has changed over the years?
CNN has become much more bureaucratic and institutionalized. Ted basically has been taking lithium now for more than 50 years. When he was running CNN he would stay up 24, 30 even 40 hours and then crash. He lived and slept at CNN. He had a little apartment on top of the newsroom building. They wouldn't see him for another 24 hours and then he'd come back full of energy.
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On The Optionist:
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