Turner Prefers ‘Ex-wives’ to Reliving AOL Merger

NEW ORLEANS — AOL Time Warner Vice Chairman Ted Turner, a highly visible philanthropist and founder of CNN as well as the world’s first cable superstation — among his other accomplishments — does not pull punches when it comes to criticizing Time Warner’s decision to merge with AOL.

“I’d rather go back and be with one of my ex-wives than go through this again,” Turner said of the merger during his keynote interview before a packed hall at the CTIA Wireless 2003 show in New Orleans Wednesday. Turner added that he is not likely to read any of the four books currently being written about the deal.

“It’s a fascinating story of how to do everything wrong,” he said, noting that the deal’s timing — at the height of the Internet boom — was terrible. He also said that both companies already had incredibly complex businesses which were difficult to manage without layering more complexity onto the organization.

“I think part of it was that it was just too complicated,” he said. He added, “If you ever have the chance to merge with AOL, stay away.”

Before Turner Broadcasting Network merged with Time Warner, Turner had arranged to buy NBC, but the acquisition was blocked by TBS board member Gerald Levin, who later architected TBS’ merger with Time Warner and the merged company’s subsequent merger with AOL.

However, Turner, an outspoken peace advocate who said in January that he intends to step down from the company’s board in May, told the crowd that he is now leaning toward staying for a little longer as war looms in Iraq.

“I’m going to make a decision after I talk to the board,” he told the crowd. “But I’m leaning toward staying for a little longer. I hate to leave with the war starting.”

After his keynote, Turner flew to New York City, where he will meet with the board.

Despite the fact that CNN, one of Turner’s crowning achievements, owes its success to the first Iraq war, Turner does not want to see another war with Iraq.

“War has been good to me from a financial standpoint,” he said. “But I don’t want to make money that way. I don’t want blood money.”

Turner said that he used to keep busts of his childhood heroes — Alexander the Great and British naval legend Horatio Nelson — on his desk, but now he keeps busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi where he can look at them as he works.

“I wish that Martin Luther King were alive in the last six months, because he might have been able to organize a movement that might have stopped this war,” he said.

His feelings on war were part of the inspiration for the format of CNN. “I wanted CNN to be relevant and deal with important issues, like why we were fighting the Cold War 40 years later,” he said.

However, Turner, who is never short on humor, noted that another Turner creation has far more hold on the public. “The Cartoon Network’s ratings are three times the rating of CNN, when there’s no war,” he said.

Those feelings also led AOL’s largest shareholder, who once approached $10 billion in net worth, to give up much of his fortune in a philanthropic crusade to support the United Nations, protect the environment and endangered species, stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and help underprivileged children.

“As I started getting rich, I started thinking, ‘what the hell am I going to do with all this money?'” he said. “You have to learn to give. Over a three year period, I gave away half of what I had. To be honest, my hands shook as I signed it away. I knew I was taking myself out of the race to be the richest man in the world.”

“I’m down to a little over $1 billion. I’ve had to adjust my lifestyle,” he said with a grin.

Still, he said the last thing he’ll give up is his private jet. “To be happy in this world, first you need a cell phone and then you need an airplane. Then you’re truly wireless.”

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