Ted Turner turns from CBS to a stake in the movie industry

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Having struck out with CBS, Ted Turner is trying to bunt. Mr. Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves, ``superstation'' WTBS-TV in Atlanta, Cable News Network, and CNN Headline News, has been all but thwarted in his hostile bid for CBS. Last week the network bought back 21 percent of its stock, including some of the stock Mr. Turner had acquired.

CBS may still find some unwanted suitors at its doorstep, however. Some analysts say the value of its assets make the stock worth twice the stock's current price of about $105 a share.

Not one to tread water, the indefatigable Turner has turned his sights to the movie business. As of this writing he was still negotiating to buy MGM/UA Entertainment Company for $1.5 billion. He would then sell back United Artists to Tracinda Corporation, the largest stockholder of MGM/UA, for about $470.

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There are some details to be ironed out, such as how Mr. Turner will pay for the company. Analysts say he may turn to Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc., which uses ``junk bond'' financing, to raise the cash. Turner said in congressional hearings last month that he had sunk $15 million in his bid for CBS.

Turner's move into the film and programming business would give him more self-sufficiency in programming, but certainly not a ``fourth network,'' analysts say. Ronald Gottesman, with Oppenheimer & Co., asks, ``Is there a synergistic effect between an entertainment company and a broadcasting company? Yes. Is Turner creating a company that can compete with the networks on equal terms? No.''

He points out that both Rupert Murdoch, who bought six television stations from Metromedia in May, and the Tribune Company have a bigger audience reach than the new Turner-MGM/UA combination would have -- and neither of these is considered a viable fourth network.

``Even though he won't get CBS,'' says Kenneth Harwood, professor of communications at the University of Houston, ``Turner wants to own something `network-like.' One way to do that is to own his own studio for entertainment programming.''

Analysts say the purchase would be a strategic, if expensive, move for Turner. The number of independent stations -- which, unlike network affiliates, do not get their programming from networks -- has tripled since 1972, bidding up the price of programming.

Buying MGM/UA would give Turner's WTBS-TV direct access to some programming and allow it to skirt some of the expensive bidding wars. But MGM/UA does not turn out enough programs to fill all of WTBS's airspace.

Buying MGM/UA, however, would put Turner on the right side of the business, Dr. Harwood says: As independent TV stations, satellite TV, cable, low-power TV stations, and videocassette recorders proliferate, they will be eager for TV programming and films.

And MGM/UA has films, including classics like ``Gone With the Wind,'' ``Ben Hur,'' and the ``Wizard of Oz.'' But many of the pay television rights to these films have been sold. Also, Turner's station would not get access to United Artist's film library, the stomping ground of two unlikely comrades, Rocky and James Bond.

MGM/UA has taken its knocks recently, which could explain the company's delight, and Wall Street's puzzlement, over the high price Turner is paying. The studio has produced few blockbusters of late. United Artists has placed two films, ``A View to a Kill'' and ``Red Sonja,'' into the top 50 this week; MGM has none. In the first nine months of its fiscal year, MGM/UA lost $66.2 million.

A key reason Turner chased CBS for so long, and the reason he has been hailed by conservative groups like Fairness in Media, is to promote what he called ``responsible'' journalism, minus the liberal bias.

If the MGM/UA acquisition goes through, he will likely ``set the tone'' in the type of films and programming the studio turns out, says Ernest Sando, a spokesman for Turner.

Other recent ventures by Turner include a programming exchange with the Soviet Union and forming an international group called the Better World Society. The nonprofit group, whose roster includes former President Jimmy Carter, says it will promote and distribute television programs and public-service advertisements on such subjects as the arms race, population control, and pollution.

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