Produced By Conference: Ted Turner Talks TV, Energy, Bisons and Saving the World

by Amy Dawes
June 6, 2010 3:59 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Ever-quotable media mogul Ted Turner did not disappoint when he turned up to speak at this weekend's Produced By Conference (sponsored by the Producers Guild of America) at the Twentieth Century Fox studios. In a wide-ranging conversation, he talked about getting his billions and millions "mixed up," the role of television, operating on gut instinct, raising 55,000 bison, and the paramount importance of saving our endangered planet. "I don't watch much TV," he said. "I'm too busy trying to save the world." His secret of success: "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise." Amy Dawes reports:

The goal of enlisting entertainment industry storytellers in his attempts to save the world was behind Ted Turner’s appearance Saturday at the second annual Produced By Conference. Turner declared that involving the entertainment business was “the key” to advancing his global agenda, which he listed as “getting rid of nuclear weapons, confronting global warming and climate change, and re-doing our energy policy to emphasize clean renewables like wind, solar and geothermal.”


Though he offered no specifics on stories he’d like to see told, Turner proffered his United Nations Foundation as a bridge between the industry and the resources and information required to get started. “Our doors are open; come tell our stories,” said U.N. Foundation exec director Elizabeth Gore in a brief lead-in presentation. The org, which Turner founded ten years ago as a means of making his billion-dollar donation to the United Nations, participated in a well-attended panel later in the afternoon titled “The Power of the Producer to Effect Social Change.”

In a wide-ranging hour-long conversation at the Zanuck Theater moderated by Variety editor Tim Gray, Turner’s remarks were typically blunt, candid and colorful. Thirty years after founding CNN, then a pioneering 24-hour cable news channel, Turner said he wouldn’t enter the television business today. Instead, he’d get into the business of creating clean energy. “You want to be in a new business so you can discover things, and one with a high barrier to entry so that you’ll have limited competition for as long as possible,” he said. “Television is now an over-stocked medium. When I got into it, there wasn’t enough television. The three networks thought there was, but nobody else did. Now you have it on the internet and everywhere else.”

Also a movie producer and founder of TNT, TBS and the Cartoon Network, Turner was asked whether entertaining people was the most important thing. “No,” he said quickly. “Informing people is. Just because the Cartoon Network often gets better ratings than CNN doesn’t make it more important.” But when it comes to crafting film and television to carry a message, he said, “You want to get your message across in a clever and entertaining way.”

Asked what he thinks of the quality and tenor of today’s news reporting, Turner avoided taking swipes at CNN’s rival networks. “Some of it’s good; some is less so,” he said simply. That the PGA-sponsored event took place at a studio owned by Rupert Murdoch, Turner’s longtime big media rival, was an irony that went unremarked.

His advice for young producers and would-be moguls sounded as if it would be unchanged in any decade: “Study the business from where you are; figure out what you want to accomplish; work out a plan for yourself, and implement the plan,” he said, then added: “But you also have to be flexible. If circumstances change, or your perspective changes, then roll with it.”

Throughout the chat, Turner’s relaxed posture and light style contrasted with his weighty concerns. Referring often to the disastrous Gulf oil spill, climate change and the glacial pace of progress toward nuclear disarmament, he called himself “the global worrier.” “My biggest concern is that we’re not going to make it,” he said. “The next 50 years will be a real test, and if we can get through that, we might be around forever.”

But while in his view, the chips are decidedly down for humanity, he declared. “You can’t get discouraged. You can’t give up. We still have time to turn it around.”

Here's the LAT.

[Photo courtesy of Ted Turner courtesy Stephen Hilger / Bloomberg News]

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