What the world needs now is more Ted Turners

Lessons about integrity that we can all learn from the TV tycoon


In over 30 years in business, I’ve been subjected to countless motivational speakers and management theories du jour. These experiences have left me a tad suspicious of the virtues of business speakers. But to every rule there is an exception.

Recently I was fortunate enough to hear the insights of a gentleman named Bill Burke. Mr. Burke spent much of his career working for Turner Broadcasting, including running its flagship station, TBS. He also co-authored Ted Turner’s autobiography.

What I enjoyed most about Mr. Burke’s presentation was that he spoke about his real-world experiences and focused on leadership and integrity. The icing on the cake was that he didn’t subject the audience to yet another PowerPoint presentation but shared his perspectives in a simple conversational style.

Not surprisingly, many of the experiences Mr. Burke recounted revolved around the colorful idiosyncrasies of Ted Turner. One in particular related to something I value above all, but is often lacking in public companies: integrity. Yet, as Ted Turner has proven, fostering a culture of integrity can yield the highest level of success.

Bill’s story centered on the Goodwill Games. Those my age might remember the sporting event that spanned the ‘90s. Created in response to the politically motivated boycotts of the Los Angeles and Moscow Olympics, Turner’s brainchild was intended to gather the world and foster friendships between cultures that harbored mutual suspicions.

The games - which aired prominently on the Turner stations, including TBS – may have partially succeeded in furthering the cause of world peace, but they did little to further the corporate goal of profit. That wasn’t a problem or issue for Turner.

Now fast-forward to the merger of Turner Broadcasting with Time Warner. Turner may not have cared if the Goodwill Games made money, but new management and the heightened financial scrutiny that often occurs after a merger have a habit of altering perspectives. Not Turner’s.

When asked at a press conference about a potential $10 million loss related to the Goodwill Games, Turner demonstrated the strength of his conviction. His response to the question: We might lose $20 million or $30 million, but that’s a drop in the bucket to achieve world peace. Needless to say, no financial follow-up questions ensued.

Turner’s response speaks volumes about the man, as does his reaction to an inconsequential promo TBS once aired. Again, this was post-merger and CBS was now a broadcast partner. Like any network, CBS had “dead spots” in its schedule that required inexpensive content. The Goodwill Games fit the bill.

To CBS, the games were merely a schedule “placeholder.” However, they remained a focal point for Turner’s flagship station, and as such the marketing department was chartered to promote the event as best they could.

To enhance the event’s importance, a promo was developed that ended with the tag – “Only on TBS.” At best, this was a parsing of the truth; the reality was that the tag referred only to particular track-and-field events that aired exclusively on TBS.

When Turner saw the misleading promo, he wasted no time in sharing a different perspective with TBS management. I believe the G-rated version was that he would like the promo removed immediately. His reason was simple: CBS was a broadcast partner and we don’t treat our partners that way.

Mind you, no one at CBS ever objected or even cared, for that matter. But Mr. Turner did because it was a matter of integrity.

Simply put, the world needs more people like Ted Turner.

Tony Paradiso of Wilton is an author, professor, entrepreneur, radio and TV commentator. His website is tonyparadiso.com.

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