Like a racing sloop furiously tacking back and forth against the wind, former championship sailor R.E. "Ted" Turner's life and business career is a history of unexpected zigs and zags.
In the 1970s, Mr. Turner was the loudmouthed "Captain Outrageous" and the "Mouth of the South." He sat in the dugout of his Atlanta Braves once to personally manage the team, and fell off a chair in a drunken stupor in front of television cameras during a news conference celebrating his America's Cup victory.
Mr. Turner's metamorphosis in the 1980s and 1990s to a media visionary couldn't have been more drastic. The 56-year-old maverick proved that he could put news on television 24 hours a day, built a profitable TV channel from a film library everyone said he'd go bankrupt buying and married actress and liberal activist Jane Fonda when she seemed to be his ideological opposite.
Another unforeseen zig occurred yesterday when media conglomerate Time Warner Inc. disclosed that it is negotiating to buy the Turner Broadcasting System company he heads for $8.5 billion in stock, proving again that the most predictable thing about Mr. Turner's future is its unpredictability. No one in the media and entertainment business is more capable of surprise, changing course and proving doubters wrong.
"In a business that has gotten exceedingly corporate, Ted is one of the few real showmen left," said David Tenzer, a television agent at Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif. "He's very entrepreneurial in a way that harks back to studio moguls of the past."
Plenty of skeptics on Wall Street and in Hollywood remain convinced the story is far from over, and that Mr. Turner's fate will once again tack sharply in a surprising new direction. They see Mr. Turner eventually balking at the deal, or another bidder emerging.
"Why would Ted want this?" asked one bewildered senior Hollywood executive, noting that the deal seemingly flies in the face of Mr. Turner's longtime dream of owning a television network.
The point is well taken. It's hard to imagine an entrepreneur worth $1.6 billion -- who has publicly declared in his frequently bombastic style that he wants to own the world -- working as an employee of TimeWarner. From his base in Atlanta, Mr. Turner has built an empire with nearly $3 billion in annual revenue with TV programming viewed by 160 million homes in more than 200 countries.
At times, Mr. Turner has complained so bitterly that Time Warner, which owns 18 percent of Turner Broadcasting, has tied his hands when it comes to buying a network that few are convinced he's given up that dream for good. Mr. Turner recently joked to television critics that he wakes up in the middle of the night, slams his bed with his fist and screams, "I've got no network!" In a shoot-from-the-lip comment that caught Mr. Turner some flak, he went so far as to compare his being prevented from buying a network to the plight of Jews in Germany during World War II.
The list of possible scenarios for Mr. Turner being discussed around Hollywood was seemingly endless yesterday. One has General Electric Co. trumping Time Warner with a bid for Turner, or even making a huge bid for Time Warner itself. Another is that Mr. Turner was initially skeptical of Time Warner's overtures, but warmed to the idea because he has an eye on possibly running Time Warner himself someday. Regardless, Mr. Turner's fate remains largely in the hands of TCI and its chief executive, John Malone, who has yet to give a deal with Time Warner his blessing.
Or maybe, just maybe, Mr. Turner has changed his goals and the proposed merger is just what it seems. People close to Mr. Turner insist that he was profoundly influenced by the recent flurry of media mergers -- capped by the $19 billion Walt Disney Co. deal for Capital Cities/ABC announced in late July. Mr. Turner, they say, realizes that he must be part of a big conglomerate to compete.
"The Disney-ABC deal was a wake-up call to all of us," said one senior Turner executives.
Said another senior Turner executive: "Ted is convinced that content will be critical to the future, and that this company will be one of the largest, if not the largest, content company in the business."
A former Turner executive said that he believes Mr. Turner realizes that he cannot get the money to finance a bid for a network without investors who would undoubtedly rein him in.
"He probably looked at his smaller army, and said commanding the Northern troops in this version of Ted's Civil War is a better place to be," the executive said.
Some see the potential deal with Time Warner as typical of Mr. Turner's brash moves in the past.
"Ted is an extraordinarily smart, adept player so successful because he's a buccaneer rather than a corporate type. He's got real vision, is tremendously entrepreneurial, and is willing to take enormous risks," said Peter Chernin, chairman of Fox Films Entertainment.
Although Mr. Turner seemingly acts on instinct at times, those close to him say that isn't the case at all. Beneath Mr. Turner's image as a seat-of-the-pants, riverboat gambler is someone who is far more calculating in making decisions than he gets credit for, close associates say, and he is undoubtedly doing the same with the Time Warner proposal.
CNN anchor Bernard Shaw said, "People laughed in his face and ours, saying we'd go broke because there wasn't enough news to fill the country and the world 24 hours a day. But his character and his sense of history wouldn't let him give up. After the boys and girls at the other networks stopped sneering, they started looking over their shoulders."