Ted Turner at 75

November 19, 2013, 12:16 PM UTC
Ted Turner in his Atlanta office
Photo: Ben Baker

Ted Turner has been defying death his entire life. His sister, Mary Jane, who was his only sibling, died at 17. His father, a philandering alcoholic, killed himself at 53. Young Ted loaded up on debt to save his father’s billboard company and later took big financial risks to create CNN , build a media and sports empire, and win the America’s Cup. “If you can get yourself where you’re not afraid of dying, then you can move forward a lot faster,” Turner told Time in 1991 when named Man of the Year.

One more feat: Turner turned 75 on Nov. 19. When Fortune last visited him, for a 2003 cover story, “Gone With the Wind,” he had lost $8 billion from Time Warner’s plummeting stock; his job; and the love of his life, Jane Fonda. Today Turner is worse for wear physically — he is frail as well as forgetful — but he still has $2.1 billion in wealth, including 2 million acres, 55,000 bison, and a restaurant chain (but no longer any Time Warner shares). He has paid $973 million of the $1 billion he pledged to the UN in 1997. Calmer than he once was, he is also more self-aware — as he revealed in an exclusive interview with Fortune’s Pattie Sellers. An edited transcript:

How are you feeling about life at 75?

It’s better than being dead.

How’s your health?

It’s okay, but it’s not great. I have both sleep apnea and atrial fibrillation, which are both debilitating conditions.

You have a pacemaker?

I do. I had it put in a few months ago. I have two. I feel a little better. But I still get exhausted real easily.

How would you describe yourself today at 75 compared to Ted Turner at 50?

I had more energy at 50. On the other hand, at 75, I’ve probably got a little more wisdom and good judgment than I had at 50 because I’ve got more experience. But I haven’t really changed. I’m still driven by the same philosophy.

And what is that?

Well, we need to make a lot of changes in order to survive another 50 years. We’re in a lot of trouble. For one thing, we’ve got thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. An accident or an earthquake could cross wires and off we go. And that would be the destruction of the world. If the Russian nuclear arsenal was fired at the United States and other targets and we fired back at them with thousands of nuclear weapons, it would be the end of life on earth.

Ted, I interviewed you for a Fortune cover profile called “Gone With the Wind” 10 years ago. In 2003 you said to me, “I think the chances are fifty- fifty that humanity will be extinct in 50 years.” Do you still believe that?

Fifty years aren’t up yet. I’d say that’s generally the case. The nuclear threat is the most imminent threat. But global climate change and environmental destruction of the earth and our resource base, that’s the other great threat. It works a little bit slower, but it would still work at a 50-year time frame very possibly.

You’ve had a strong stance toward overpopulation.

Absolutely.

What’s your prescription for how to manage population and thus manage the environment?

Well, we need to have less children. I believe it needs to be voluntary, but it needs to be encouraged. There has been tremendous progress. In 1950 not one single country had a stable population. They were all growing, all 200 countries. Now I think 40 or so countries have negative or stable population. Japan is losing population rapidly, and quite a few other countries are too. The problem is, at the rate that it’s going, we’re losing out on the population battle. In order to have a really healthy long-term future, we need to have about 2½ billion people.

Compared to?

We’ve got 7, 7⅓, right now. [That 2½ billion goal] came from Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb 50 years ago. The good news is that if families around the world chose to have one child starting right away, we’d move back toward 2½ billion without any abortions or population control. All we’d need to do is use family planning. I had five children, okay? But when I had those five children 50 years ago, the world population was 3 billion — less than half what it is today.

You have, I think, 13 grandchildren?

Yes.

Have you encouraged your kids not to have many children?

I have. They know.

I know you were religious up to the point of seeing your sister suffer for five years and die at 17. You’ve gone back and forth about whether you’re agnostic. Has your lack of belief that God will save humanity motivated you to feel a level of responsibility that other people don’t feel?

If God’s going to save us, it’s time for him to show up. We’re not showing evidence that we’re ready to save ourselves. That’s what bothers me.

Do you consider yourself agnostic today?

Yeah. I still say prayers for my friends who are ill. Little short prayers. Mini-prayers. It can’t hurt anything.

What do you know now that you did not know 30 years ago?

I know for absolutely sure that the AOL merger was a disaster for Time Warner.

Time Warner, since you left, has spun off the cable business and AOL, and it’s spinning off Time Inc. [Fortune’s publisher] next year.

The magazines — I wouldn’t have done that.

Why wouldn’t you have done that?

Well, I think that having the best print media to complement the video of the networks gives you the strongest chance of being successful into the future. And I think in spinning off Time Inc., Time Warner is spinning off the future — a lot of the future — because I don’t think that the magazine business is going to get significantly worse than it is today as a standalone. For instance, in the Super Bowl, when you have the Time Inc. reporters reporting it for print and the audio and video portion on CNN or one of the cable networks, it gives you the strongest chance of getting the story and capturing the viewers because you have something that nobody else has: audio, video, and print.

Twenty years ago you were saying that print is dead.

That’s true. Standalone print is dead. But print in conjunction with audio and video, I believe, has a future.

After the Time Inc. spinoff, Time Warner will be the Turner assets, HBO, and the Warner TV and movie studios.

They might as well rename it Turner Broadcasting. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Even today the jewel of Time Warner’s crown is Turner Broadcasting. I think Time Warner made a mistake in closing down their 24-hour sports network and their 24-hour financial network. I think they should have been in that for the long haul, like Rupert Murdoch was. He kept his sports and news networks and toughed it out. Time Warner was more shortsighted.

Have you softened on Rupert? He was never your best pal.

Well, I was disappointed in the scandal in Britain where they were wiretapping people against the law.

You know what you said to me about six times 10 years ago when we talked: “Rupert Murdoch is the most dangerous man in the world.”

I still think that. But he’s getting too old.

Why do you think he’s the most dangerous man in the world?

He’s got the most power. And he bought the Wall Street Journal. I don’t know how he’s doing with it financially, but it’s a better paper with him running it than it was before, in my opinion. And you know, you don’t see Time Warner acquire anything. All they’ve done is spin things off.

You know, Time Warner stock has doubled in the last couple of years.

Wonderful.

How much money have you put into solar energy?

I think it’s getting close to $100 million. We’re a junior partner with Southern Co. in the solar installation business. The previous 10 or 20 years I was buying land, but I’ve got enough land. And I want to encourage clean energy. I feel we need to phase out fossil fuels completely as quickly as we can. That’s gas, oil, and coal.

You’re partnering with Southern Co., not doing your own venture.

It’s so important to be at scale. At 75, how much longer will I live? Till 80 maybe?

Really? Why not 90?

Well, it’s a possibility. I certainly would look forward to being here then. But I’m talking about practically. Anyway, 75 is too late to be starting new ventures. Particularly ones that take many years to reach fruition. I wouldn’t want to start anything without having a reasonable chance of seeing it be successful before I die or am incapacitated.

Do you own any stocks today?

I hardly have any stocks. I got so badly hammered, I just felt like I’d sleep better without a lot of stock. I do have investments. I’ve got large investments in my land holdings, in my bison herds, and I’ve got a restaurant chain that I really enjoy. You know, I used to feed people’s desire for news. Now I feed them directly with food.

Ted’s Montana Grill. You have 44 restaurants in 16 states, I believe.

Yeah, that’s right.

You had a goal back in 2003 that in 10 years this chain would be 500 units and $1 billion in revenue.

That would have been totally unrealistic, but maybe on the first day I figured I’d be real optimistic. We achieved 5% of [the volume goal], and we did $100 million in revenue, approximately. And it’s profitable.

You’re the world’s largest bison owner.

I’ve got 11% of all the bison in the world. And 10% of the prairie dogs.

What is that about, Ted?

Well, I wanted my restaurants to have something different and exclusive. We’re practically exclusive with bison. There’s not enough of it to supply another large chain. So I’m in good shape.

And why do you own 10% of the world’s prairie dogs?

The prairie dogs, from time to time, have plague — the same plague that people got in Europe. People actually gave prairie dogs the plague. So there’s been a big die-off of prairie dogs.

You’re trying to save the prairie dog population?

Yeah. And we’re working with the U.S. [Fish & Wildlife Service] and state organizations to bring back the black-footed ferret and the burrowing owl. That’s one of the other things I do. I try to save endangered species.

Why is it so important to save these particular endangered species?

Well, I had on my bumper sticker, SAVE THE HUMANS. We switched it over to SAVE EVERYTHING because every time we lose a species to extinction, the world becomes a slightly degraded place. We’re facing the extinction of the rhino. Every day two rhinos are killed by poachers in Africa. At the rate that we’re going, there won’t be any rhinos left in 10 years. The rhinos are being killed for their horns. Some yo-yos in China think that if you grind up a rhino’s horn and put it in water and make some soup out of it, it’ll make you more virile. It’s like an old wives’ tale. Anyway, having said that, I’ve never tried it.

What was the high point of your career?

I’d say being named Time’s Man of the Year. That shows how screwed up Time Warner is. I’m the only Time Man of the Year who worked for them. When we merged with them, I was getting a salary of $250,000 a year, and I was the highest-paid man in Turner Broadcasting. They said, “We’ve got to give you a raise.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Because we all make $6 million. It’ll look bad when we put our salaries in the annual report and you’re making $250,000 and running our biggest division. So we’re gonna raise you to $6 million.” I went along with that. [Editor: In the year Turner received his big raise, 1997, Gerald Levin, Time Warner’s CEO, received $8.2 million total compensation; Richard Parsons, the company’s president and the next-highest-paid officer, received $4 million.]

Yes, for a while.

Then when they made the decision to take away my duties, they said, “We want to offer you a new contract.” I said, “Well, tell me about it. What’s the deal?” They said, “We’d like to give you $1 million a year for several years.” I said, “What are my duties going to be?” They said, “Nothin’. ” I said, “You’re letting people go — people making $40,000 a year — and you’re willing to give me $1 million to keep my mouth shut? You can take it and shove it.” And I walked out. How’s that for taking care of the shareholders’ money? Trying to pay me off. It’s almost criminal.

Was that the lowest point of your career, walking out of Time Warner?

Yeah.

You said in your book, Call Me Ted, that you had contemplated suicide.

Not very seriously. I’m not gonna do that to my children and my friends. I had experienced that with my father, and I was not going to put them through that.

What are you most proud of?

First, my children. Second, the cable networks and in particular CNN.

What kind of a father have you been?

Obviously, I like to think I’ve been a pretty good father. Usually, the way you can tell is if you have good children. And my children are good children. There’s never been one DUI, not one rehab. Those are very common things nowadays, particularly in successful people’s families, because usually a successful father spends a lot of time working. That comes at the expense of the family. And the family responds by being dysfunctional. [My children] have strong philanthropic backgrounds. They’re all conservationists. In other words, I did not turn them off. It’s not very common for the children to want to do the same things that their parents did.

Credit to you, Ted. You were away a lot, building your business.

Yeah, a lot of that credit goes to my wife of 20 years, Jane Smith Turner, and to Jane Fonda.

You were married three times. Your kids went through a lot of change.

I had only one wife for 20 of those 30 years while they were growing up. That was not accidental. I figured Janie and I better be around to raise these children because they’re going to need the help of both of us. I deliberately said, “I’m not even going to think about getting married again for 20 years.”

And the other thing you’re proudest of, CNN?

All of Turner Broadcasting, really, because the Cartoon Network has higher ratings than CNN on most days.

Did you ever imagine that?

Yes.

Why?

We like to laugh. If you get people laughing, there’s a good chance you’ll win them over. Very seldom do people kill somebody when they’re laughing. And there’s plenty of killing going on now.

CNN was the first 24-hour news network.

The first global network.

How sure were you that CNN would work?

I was pretty sure. And the reason was that I went to work early in the morning, and I didn’t have time to see the morning news shows. And I didn’t get home till 7 or 8 o’clock, and the news was over at 6:30. So I never got a chance to see television news. And I figured there were a lot of people like me and that if we were on 24 hours a day, some people would watch us, and if we did a good job, they would tune in again. We went all over the world with it. You can even see CNN in North Korea. At the hotel in Pyongyang. I’ve done it.

Initially doubters called it the Chicken Noodle Network.

That was the competition. What are they supposed to do? Say, “CNN’s a lot better than we are”? Everybody was having trouble getting distribution because the cable operators were afraid that the programmers were getting too powerful. I called it Cable News Network — I figured when people called on the phone to their cable system, they’d say, “How come you’re not carrying the Cable News Network? You’re the cable company.”

You know, the name confused people. The cable operators didn’t want to make their viewers unhappy, so they all had to put it on [the air]. And they put it on real fast. Within a year we were on almost every cable system. And now they just call it CNN. Wasn’t that pretty clever?

That was extremely clever.

[Pointing to his head.] That didn’t come out of the promotion department.

Do you have any desire to be in the media business today?

I wish I still had Turner Broadcasting. I think we would have done a lot better if I’d stayed in it, the way Rupert did, the entire time. I wish I had done that.

And what would you have done differently?

I don’t know, because I’ve been thinking about other things. I moved on.

This story is from the December 09, 2013 issue of Fortune.