With Ted Turner's descent, end of an era?

Once, to hammer home his point about a pending telecom bill, Ted Turner dropped to the floor of a senator's office, clutched at his throat, and rolled around like an infant, crying, "You're going to kill me!"

In the end, though, it was not overzealous lawmakers, but the media industry itself, that sent the television magnate into exile. The quirky founder of CNN - a man who once challenged Rupert Murdoch to a Las Vegas boxing match - stepped down earlier this month as vice chairman of AOL-Time Warner, a media giant that some say had grown too big for its own good.

Now, the fall of Mr. Turner's fortunes could affect everything from buffalo herds to UN budgets. It also calls into question the future of Turner's brand of upstart entrepreneurism in an industry with fewer and fewer big players.

As the largest private landowner in the US, second only to the US Bureau of Land Management, Turner is unlikely to recede quietly into a Western sunset. Some say he'll retire to his Florida mansion; others suggest he'll buy back the Atlanta Braves, which he first acquired in 1976; still others predict he'll become a vocal critic of media conglomerates that put profit over public service.

"Ted recognized that the big media mergers have had a destructive effect ... on the quality of the news environment that he helped create at CNN," says Jeff Chester, a merger critic and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington. "These media companies are in control of democracy's central nervous system."

At the same time, critics see Turner's sidelining as a symptom of a media industry in deeper turmoil. "Part of [Turner leaving] is that you're seeing less and less of the individual visionary ..., but it also signifies a change in public policy," where Big Media can dominate not just national, but also local media markets, says Larry Grossman, former head of NBC and author of "The Electronic Republic."

An industry in turmoil

At first glance, it's a business that needs all the saviors it can get - eccentric or not. Right now, profits are in free fall at several media groups. The problems are the worst at AOL-Time Warner: Before Turner's announcement, the company declared a $98.8 billion loss - the largest in the history of corporate America. Disney, which owns ABC, has also lost 20 percent of its stock value in the last year.

Some of it is simply due to the troubled economy. But others say these media giants increasingly suffer from a lack of vision, and may be breaking apart from sheer bulk. Indeed, some divisions of AOL-Time Warner are reportedly considering hiving off of some of their corporate stashes.

But on the whole, AOL-Time Warner's travails are not likely to end of the bundling of smaller TV and cable outlets into big companies like Viacom or Disney. Indeed,the current prognosis is for a tide of "mini-AOLs," says Mr. Chester

Dazzling, eccentric, infuriating

Once described as a latter-day Rhett Butler, Turner came to symbolize the South's rise out of its Jim Crow ashes. His career arc mirrored the rise of Atlanta as "Turner Land," where a newly brash city became the hub for a new generation of high-flying entrepreneurs.

Born in Cleveland, Turner took over his dad's billboard company at 24, using proceeds to turn a fuzzy Atlanta UHF station into the "Superstation" - one of cable's first quality offerings. His founding of CNN, the first 24-hour news channel, earned him comparisons to Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.

With his shiny gray hair and trademark moustache, Turner is as recognizable as he is legendary. He's reported to have handed CNN editors a version of "Nearer My God to Thee" in 1990, before the Gulf War - in case the world was ending. He often bragged about taking Fidel Castro's advice to open CNN's international service.

Marrying, then divorcing, actress Jane Fonda, Turner also built a buffalo-burger empire and bought millions of acres in Montana and New Mexico - becoming the country's largest private landholder.

Turner dazzled, shocked, and disgusted his colleagues. But no one could call him boring."The 'mouth of the South' is an eccentric ... but he's also a genius," says New York media investor Porter Bibb, one of his biographers. "He's dead honest: He never misdirects or leads or lies."

But many say Turner's acumen irked as much as fascinated his colleagues, and didn't mesh with the new culture of giant media companies. Clashing egos and infighting were leading to one significant trend: shrinking news budgets and a new premium on "star" anchors like Paula Zahn and Connie Chung.

Turner was informed by fax of his demotion to vice chairman after the AOL-Time Warner deal. But his frustration culminated last month, when Warner Brothers failed to distribute his Civil War movie "Gods and Generals" in time to make a run at the Oscars. "Ted is very, very angry," says Mr. Bibb.

As the stock kept falling, the AOL-Time-Warner's troubles started hitting Turner in the pocketbook. Since the merger, he's lost some 86 percent of his stock holdings, sinking his net worth from nearly $8 billion to $1.59 billion.

What might have fueled his frustration, friends say, was his growing inability to pursue a quiver of philanthropic projects: His promise to give the United Nations $1 billion for international-relief efforts is now on hold, and the Turner Foundation, which gives grants to environmental groups, will accept no grant applications for 2003.

"No one's worried that Ted is going to have to panhandle," says Chester, the merger critic. "What he's really worried about now is his legacy."

But if Turner in fact uses his new-found retirement as a springboard to criticize today's conglomerated media, as some have suggested, there's another question: Will anybody listen?

On the whole, the public seems sanguine about TV's evolution. New legislation is likely to allow single companies to own TV stations, newspapers, and radio stations in the same markets - which antimonopoly laws now prevent.

"[TV programming is] a giant maw ..., and it keeps getting fed," says Henry Geller, the former general counsel for the Federal Communications Commission. "And the public is not [up] in arms."

But some media analysts say Turner's resignation and the travails at AOL and Disney merely indicate temporary doldrums for what, only two years ago, was seen as the next generation of "synergistic" media companies. Some experts say the time is ripe for a new generation of media sages to grab for Turner's crown.

"This train wreck at AOL-Time Warner is a highly misleading indicator," says Everette Dennis, a media-management professor at Fordham University in New York. "It's always been in ... markets like this when new visionaries appear."

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