TO ONE WHO WORKED for Ted Turner for the past six years, as the first person he hired for his Cable News Network, it is clear to me that behind the outrageous egomaniac seen by the public in his CBS takeover attempt lies a canny businessman who is hedging his bet on the profitability of cable television.
Turner, a brilliant visionary of the communications revolution, has perceived that the mnrket for cable has not fulfilled his early expectations.
What is not generally perceived about Turner's CBS takeover bid is that it is actually a carefully thought- out course correction, not some suicidal, impetuous plunge. Having apparently concluded that cable television will not soon bring the three traditional networks to their knees, he is putting up his cable holdings as bargaining chips in his takeover bid.
I remember the original course that Turner outlined in May 1979, when he invited me to Las Vegas to enlist me in a project he was planning to announce that day at a convention of cable-television owners. His plan was to create, a year later, a 24-hour-a-day news network.
At that time, the record of his existing television enterprise, the Atlanta "superstation" WTBS, which transmitted programs by satellite to cable systems around the country, did not inspire confidence about his respect for journalism. WTBS' only news program was at 3 a.m., and was more a parody than a news broadcast. On one occasion, the anchormen, in a lampoon of the CBS Evening News, did the entire program from behind a photograph of Walter Cronkite.
But Turner promised me that Cable News Network would be a real news enterprise, part of a diversity of programming in the exploding cable television market. He portrayed for me a day, not far off, when a "wired nation" would be offered a variety of specialized programs that would fragment the mass audience and break the stranglehold of the three networks -- a prospect that seemed to exhilarate him.
Everything about him seemed confident, combative and competitive. He said he hated newspapers because they had fought to ban his family's billboards. He hated the networks because they were big and smug and their programming was violence-prone and somehow un- American.
Turner predicted in a 1981 policy statement that by 1990 cable would expand to a point where the three networks would have no more than half the television audience. He stated that would be a boon to America since "their total commitment to the ratings race has led to inferior programming, which is designed to appeal to the worst instincts of the American people."
That remained Turner's vision for perhaps another year. CNN's audience grew rapidly. (It now reaches 34 million homes with cable.) It won the grudging admiration of network news departments for its ability to cover breaking news, prodding them into expanding their news coverage. Like CBS founder William S. Paley in his heyday, Turner would sometimes intervene to dictate decisions about who would be on the air as anchors -- as the "stars." But generally, he kept his hands off day-to- day news operations. In fact, he told me that he seldom had time to listen to CNN -- except when he "turned up the sound" in times of international crisis.
But although CNN met his own expectations, the expansion of the cable television market began to slow down. CNN, a journalistic success, did not succeed in turning a profit. Meanwhile, videocassettes began to cut into the cable as well as the broadcast television market.
By the fall of 1982, rumors started that Turner, foreseeing continued profitability for the networks, and unable to beat them, was looking for a way to join them.
Turner was not immediately ready to admit that. In September 1982, asked by a trade magazine obout rumors of a possible merger with CBS, he said, defiantly, "I'm not planning to do that. We're growing faster than anyone else. Why would we want to merge with anyone? That's just crazy." Indeed, the courtship then seemed to be on the side of CBS. That fall, Eugene Jankowski, head of the CBS television network, and William Leonard, his news chief, held a meeting in an Atlanta motel with Turner and Robert Wussler, his number two, a former CBS executive. CBS, seeking to make a delayed entry into the cable field, offered to buy a controlling interest in CNN. Turner ended the negotiation abruptly, after a few minutes, by saying he would not sell more than 49 percent.
By February 1983, however, Turner seemed ready to make a more comprehensive offer to CBS. According to industry sources, in a meeting with CBS board chairman Thomas Wyman, he proposed merging some or all of his holdings -- WTBS, CNN, the separate "CNN Headline News," the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team -- in return for a substantial share of CBS stock, enough to make him the largest single stockholder.
That proposal was rejected by CBS out of hand, according to a CBS executive. But the fact of the meeting suggested, first, that CBS remained fascinated by the maverick cable and sports entrepreneur and, second, that Turner, his vision of cable domination of networks having faded, would seek some way of breaking into the industry he had scorned.
From then on he made no secret of his desire to gain control of a network. His rationale varied with the audience. In speeches, he asserted the aim of reducing "sleazy," violence-laden programming and replacing it with "shows that are uplifing, that support family values."
To right-wing audiences, he hinted at a more ideological perspective. Speaking to the National Conservative Foundation, he said: "These networks need to be gotten into the hands of people who care about this country."
But Turner, a bundle of contradictions, does not fit any ideological stereotype. While he speaks in generally conservative terms about the economy and domestic affairs, he has flown to Moscow to discuss an exchange of live broacasts. And he has become a duck-hunting friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro, of whom he has said, "Castro's not a communist. He's like me -- a dictator."
When Castro told Turner that he was an avid (though non-paying) watcher of CNN through his own satellite dish, Turner responded not with anger at the intercept but by getting Castro to tape a promotional announcement for CNN. Castro did so, and Turner had to be persuaded by his aides not to air it.
Partly because of his unorthodox politics, Turner, ranging far and wide for backers and allies to help him take over a network, ended up going it alone.
Last August, during the Republican convention in Dallas, Turner was heard by several CNN employes asking ex-Gov. John Connally (who had been engaged as guest commentator) to set up meetings with wealthy Texans who might wish to join in a network takeover.
Turner's talks with Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), did not succeed in winning the support of the conservative Fairness in Media committee. Turner told others that he had said to Helms that he would welcome the backing of any group -- including one led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), if he were willing. That did not sit well with a group bent on changing what it considers to be CBS' liberal bias, Turner later told another potential investor.
Talks with former Secretary of the Treasury William Simon appparently also foundered on a conflict of strong personalities. Turner's long- time slogan has been "Lead, follow or get out of the way!" Most potential allies seemed content to get out of the way.
So, unable to get substantial backing, Turner finally settled on a bond- selling plan involving brazenness, ingenuity and little or no cash of his own for the hostile takeover of CBS. It was the same combination that had launched him on most of his business ventures.
What drives Turner? That's hard to say, because I've seen him function on several different levels and in different emotional states, from serenity to rage.
Turner has acknowledged that the suicide of his father -- who once wrote to him in college calling him a "jackass" for wanting to study classical Greek, and who pushed him to go into business -- had an important effect. In an unusually candid speech I heard Turner make at Georgetown University in 1982, he said that his father's death "left me alone because I had counted on him to make the judgment of whether or not I was a success."
He told me that his main interest in money was that it was a measure of success. He also achieves a sense of success from constantly escalating gambles and achievments. In that quest, there seems to be no end. If he gains control of CBS, what then?
This product -- and shaper -- of the telecommunications revolution is said to have told friends that the greatest political base is television and with that, when the time comes, he can "make my pitch to be president."