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20 People Who Changed Tech: Ted Turner And Jerry Levin

By bringing the world of content to the world of technology, they transformed media and entertainment.

Ted Turner Jerry Levin
Ya gotta love Ted Turner. He gets points for:

-- Getting kicked out of Brown University for having a woman in his room. (Go, Ted!)

-- Realizing that by buying transponders on a geosynchronous satellite, he could create a Superstation. The cable industry would carry his signal of old movies, baseball games … and advertising … for free -- and in doing so would upset the balance of power in television from the Big Three networks into a free-for-all. Time magazine named Turner its Man of the Year in 1991.

-- Starting Cable News Network and the idea of news anytime, anywhere, around the world. And then starting CNN Europe, Japan, Russia, Africa and about a dozen others I can't name.

-- Giving Jane Fonda a fifth career: from actress, activist, fitness guru, media mogul wife back to actress. I'm eagerly awaiting "Barbarella Returns."

-- Offering a refund to ticket holders when his Atlanta Braves played poorly one day. The baseball empire was appalled: "Apologize? Apologize? We are the owners! We never apologize." Turner was Mark Cuban before Mark Cuban was Mark Cuban. Once, Turner got so upset with the Braves manager that he sent him on a "scouting" trip and managed the team himself. The Baseball Powers That Be weren't amused, so Turner promised to behave. (P.S.: He didn't mean it.)

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-- Founding the Good Will Games in an attempt to build his own programming while politicking for world peace. Turner realized that "sponsoring" the Olympics would mean paying higher and higher fees every four years, but by owning the Good Will Games, he could cap his costs and have the world's attention every two years when America and Russia duked it out for bragging rights as the most vigorous nation. And so he created first-rate programming, on his station and available only through your local cable company. While the Olympic Committee held the Big Networks hostage every four years, Turner figured a creative alternative. Take that, CBS, ABC, NBC!

-- Giving a $1 billion gift to the United Nations Foundation … and then keeping his pledge when his own financial stockpile went straight down. Man of his word.


-- Winning the America's Cup, even though he often got seasick. Turner made the cover of Sports Illustrated on July 4, 1974. Along the way, Turner and Rupert Murdoch picked classic fight after classic fight with each other over everything from politics to whose boat was bigger, faster and more expensive. They had a hate/hate relationship. Turner once compared Murdoch to Adolph Hitler, and not favorably.

-- Being probably the No. 1 environmentalist in America. With more than 2 million acres, almost three times the size of Rhode Island, Turner is one of the biggest private landowners in the U.S. John Malone is No. 1, which I guess shows that size does matter.

-- Trying -- and failing -- to buy his own TV network, CBS. Turner then bought MGM's film library, then sold it, etc.

I could go on. We hear that God protects children, drunks and sailors, and Turner has been all three. But his greatest single strength is action and a slight case of dyslexia, which allowed him to see opportunity where others didn't. (Ever hear about the agnostic dyslexic insomniac? Man stayed up all night wondering if there was a Dog.)

TV Plug

Turner was cable before cable was cool. The cable industry needed Ted Turner and Ted Turner needed the cable industry. In a world starved for programming, Turner was programming: CNN, WTCG-TV Superstation, Turner Entertainment, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network.

If Turner had a flaw, it was his attention disorder. He often put his company at risk by piling debt onto debt to fund idea after idea, to the point that the cable industry had to bail him out and put him on an "allowance." John Malone's company acquired 21% of Turner's media companies and Time Warner another 19%, so Turner, for the first time, couldn't make decisions unilaterally; his new "minders" could veto the wildest of his ideas. It's not that he didn't have good ideas -- he had great ones. But before one new idea was fully operationalized, Turner was on to the next one or flying off to Cuba to plant the CNN flag next to Castro's front door.

Turner's genius was that he could pull together programming, package it, sell it, pull it apart, sell it again, fight with the FCC, win and trade some assets for an even better hand of assets. He not only looked like Rhett Butler; he was Rhett Butler. And while he was doing all this work, he would fly off every weekend and race his yachts. (Hey, Larry Ellison, want to go two out of three?) And he had the most amazing fun doing it, flying so very close to the sun.

20 People Who Changed Tech

At a certain point, Turner tacked to leeward (a nautical term, you landlubbers) and sold his companies to Time Warner, in 1995. He didn't want to sell, but better Time Warner than Rupert Murdoch. He had lots of money, but he lost the things he loved most: the action, the excitement, the leading every parade. Turner was the biggest shareholder of Time Warner, so when the stock spiked he was wealthy beyond wealth, but when it cratered, he was The Biggest Loser, seeing his stake lose $7 billion. My father used to ask me if a man with $10 billion is happier than a man with $5 billion. Remind me to ask Ted sometime.

Meantime, the other man who led the media and entertainment parade, Jerry Levin, was the man who took Turner out of his operating role at Turner Broadcasting. Turner got even when he helped Steve Case dethrone Levin, but that was in the future.

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Turner was an idea guy, but was not so good at operations. Levin, who succeeded the legendary Steve Ross at Time Warner, had two loves: technology and strategy.

Levin was more than a gearhead in love with every advancement. He conceived of a plan five years before to turn Time Inc. into a media conglomerate, first by acquiring Warner (music and movies) and then by acquiring Turner. With Time's interest in cable systems and Home Box Office, he had two parts of the puzzle, and now he had two more. Levin made one serious mistake and one minor one.

He believed that the media and entertainment revolution was going to come through your TV set, not your computer. Levin began a big cable-based two-way broadband experiment called Full Service Network in 1994. Time magazine, interactive games, movies on demand, home shopping, access to an AOL competitor called Pathfinder and more would all come through your cable connection and a very powerful set-top box. It would be superfast and leave competitors in the dust.

Six months after it started, FSN was DOA. It was too expensive, too early and impossible to roll out nationwide. Big, big miss. Pathfinder hadn't found its way, either.

Satellite TV

As loud and as over the top as Ted Turner was, Jerry Levin was the opposite: quiet, cerebral, erudite, Levin was the son of a rabbi and a University of Pennsylvania lawyer, who earned fame as the programming director of HBO and eventually CEO of Time Warner. But he will go down in history for engineering probably the worst merger in the history of mergers: Time Warner with AOL. It's hard to lose $100 billion in market cap, but Levin did it.

Think back to 2000. The world is going crazy for the Internet and AOL looks like the go-to company. There are very few true Internet companies, and AOL has 30 million Americans subscribing to its service. Its stock is in the stratosphere and it's everyone's darling.

Levin looks at his assets at Time Warner -- the finest portfolio of magazines in the country, cable franchises in terrific locations, a crackerjack movie empire and HBO, which is making money hand over fist. But Levin can't get no respect; his company is "old school." He realizes that the future isn't going to come through the television; it's going to come through that squeaky little home computer, and the biggest asset around is … AOL. So he decides to merge with The Cool Kid on the Block. So he leads the merger, but the majority partner isn't the bigger company, the better-run company, the more profitable company. Oh, no, the control goes to AOL! In the classic photo at the close of the deal, AOL CEO Steve Case is wearing a tie, which he probably rented, and Levin has shaved off his moustache for the first time in memory, and he's open collar, probably the first time he got caught without a tie.

Levin manages to anoint himself CEO, but Case manages to outstrategize the strategist, trading his overpriced stock for the security of merging with real stock, with real earnings and assets. Later it would be shown that too much of AOL's advertising revenue was from startups that would vanish when the Internet bubble burst.

But give Levin credit: He shepherded a major corporation, one that defined itself around the printed word and advertising, into an age based more on electrons than atoms. What he didn't foresee was that the princes of the empire wouldn't play together, and that "synergy" was just another word for "lose money."

Along the way, the AOL stock went from $90 to $10, and all those precious stock options went up in smoke. Jerry Levin was the fall guy.

Still, what Turner and Levine did was bring the world of content to the world of technology. There's always a debate between the content and infrastructure guys as to who is king. Both Turner and Levin figured out that without one, the other is less valuable. If you could own content and could co-opt distribution, you would be unstoppable.

Both men were the first to understand that a geostationary satellite signal beamed to cable head ends would upset the traditional powers. Having their own content along with their own access would give them a supposedly unbeatable hand. Levin later decided that he needed another set of weapons, via AOL, and he and his company would pay dearly for them.

Levin just assumed that Steve Case would eventually blow up and he would be The Last Man Standing, continuing to build The World's Greatest Media Company. He who the gods would destroy they first make angry -- and arrogant.

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