Eye on the News

Stefan Kanfer
TCM’S Sweet Sixteenth
Not everything Ted Turner has created is ridiculous.
1 July 2010

On finance: “If I sold all my liabilities, I wouldn’t own anything. My wife’s a liability, my kids are liabilities, and I haven’t sold them.”

On Catholicism (to some employees who appeared one Ash Wednesday with dark marks on their foreheads): “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks? You ought to be working for Fox.”

On global warming: “We’ll be eight degrees hotter in . . . 30 or 40 years, and basically none of the crops will grow. Most of the people will have died and the rest of us will be cannibals.”

On Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons: “We have 28,000. Why can’t they have 10?”

On the oil spill: “I’m just wondering if God’s telling us he doesn’t want us to drill offshore.”

Given Ted Turner’s vast compendium of fatuities, it seems hard to believe that he’s actually done some good in his lifetime. Granted, his macro moves have mostly been illustrations of the Law of Unintended Consequences. A board member of Time Warner, he endorsed the merger with AOL with “as much or more excitement and enthusiasm as I did on that night when I first made love some 42 years ago.” It turned out to be the most disastrous combine in Wall Street history. He pledged $1 billion to the United Nations, an organization famous for high-minded declarations—and notorious for squandering time, money, and principles. He created CNN, which gave birth to the 24-hour news cycle, with its endless repetition of footage, endless interviews with retired military officers, and endless explanations of the obvious.

It’s the micro moves that have provided Turner’s damage control. His Western ranches, for example, have re-popularized bison meat—far lower in fat than pork, beef, or chicken. Turner made the Atlanta Braves into a classy franchise that has dominated the Eastern Division of the National League for more than a decade. And perhaps best of all, he established TCM (Turner Classic Movies), launched in the spring of 1994.

Turner and movies were not a natural combination. Some of his other TV channels (TNT, for example) showed horrific “colorized” versions of film noirs like The Maltese Falcon. But after a hue and cry by aficionados who cried about the hue, Turner Classic Movies came to the rescue. Sixteen years later, it still shows old movies exactly as they were originally seen, full-length, untinted, and uninterrupted by commercials. Spaces between the films are filled with coming attractions and short subjects from the thirties, forties, and fifties, among them the hilarious Pete Smith specials and Robert Benchley monologues.

TCM’s host, Robert Osborne, who has been with the station since the beginning, scatters insights and information about the forthcoming film—and then gets out of the way. On the weekends, Alec Baldwin drops by for a surprisingly civilized discussion of an “essential” movie. Manifestly, nostalgia buffs comprise a large portion of the audience. But Charlie Tabesh, TCM senior vice president for programming, notes that there’s a second group. It “transcends all ages; they’re the kind of people who would go to a revival theater or follow a particular director or genre.”

TCM’s vast library gives them what they want: the best works of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, United Artists, RKO, and Warner Bros. These assets aren’t enough to drown out the self-destructive quotes that Ted Turner keeps producing—the Atlantan is called the Mouth of the South for good reason. But it would be ungracious not to wish a happy 16th birthday to his gift that keeps on giving. And maybe it’s not too late for Turner to learn something from a man who appears on TCM with the regularity of the seasons. John Wayne’s advice to actors applies just as well to plutocrats: “Talk low, talk slow, . . . and above all, don’t talk too much.”

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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