Turner rumored to consider leaving TV


Some things seem almost incomprehensible: the Yanks winning the pennant this year, life on Mars, Ted Turner cashing out.

Ted Turner getting out of the TV business? Chucking it all for life on his New Mexico ranch? Spending his twilight years raising buffalo with Jane Fonda?

Mr. Turner has taken to raising buffalo for food and recreation in Montana. The answer could be yes. Then again, it could be no. He's not an easy man to figure.

In recent days, reports have circulated that Mr. Turner has considered a plan that would mean splintering his cable programming empire. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that he has held discussions with Time Warner and Tele-Communications Inc. (both dominant Turner Broadcasting System shareholders) about such a split-up. The report said it was unclear how the two companies would carve up TBS, although Time Warner, as part of a 1987 shareholder agreement, could end up controlling CNN while TCI could end up with the other properties, such as TNT, Superstation TBS and other programming outlets.

According to another scenario, Mr. Turner could still have some undefined management role in the company. But the Era of Ted would still be effectively over.

The man, of course, has exerted greater influence on the fate of television (both network and cable) than any other individual in the past two decades. The reason is that, historically, where Ted has gone, so has the cable TV business. With the 1976 launch of WTBS/Superstation, he anticipated an era in which cable operators would need round-the-clock programming; with CNN, he anticipated a viewer appetite for round-the-clock news; and with his purchase of the MGM library (after a failed attempt to buy CBS), he anticipated his own network's appetite for programs.

If Mr. Turner bails out now, does that mean that this human divining rod has, once again, gleaned a sense of where this business is going? To that question, observers say the answer is most likely no.

The cable industry is suffering from unprecedented assaults by government: Cable systems around the country will shortly be forced to pay retransmission fees to TV stations for the privilege of carrying their signal, while the Federal Communications Commission is forcing systems to roll back rates. For the first time in its short, profitable history, it is also facing real competitors, such as the telephone companies.

But Mr. Turner's decision to leave it all behind may simply be a personal one. Because of the unwieldly debt from the MGM purchase, Mr. Turner was forced to sell huge equity stakes to TCI (which took 22.5 percent of the company) and Time Warner (which holds 18.9 percent).

He still holds some 55 million shares and is the single most dominant force at TBS. But since 1987, when the sell-off occurred, he has been in a Mexican standoff with those partners who saved his skin.

Mr. Turner, who liked to rule his company by touch and feel, was suddenly forced to defer to managers who were more "responsible" and certainly less creative.

If Mr. Turner cashes out, he could leave with some $2 billion. He could -- as some believe -- go to Hollywood and buy a studio.

Or he could live happily ever after with Jane, and, of course, his buffalo.

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