-- The title of Ted Turner's autobiography, Call Me Ted, suggests a familiarity that probably is warranted. After all, how many readers of books (or reviews of those books) are unaware of the man and at least some of his many remarkable accomplishments?
In a folksy, sometimes candid and occasionally self-deprecating book, the 70-year-old tycoon covers his successes and setbacks in the billboard business (aka outdoor advertising) started by his father, television entertainment, Hollywood movies, cable news, professional sports ownership, championship sailing, world peace and other outlets for philanthropy, marriage and parenting.
Turner is a genius at identifying opportunities for business and pleasure, working yeoman hours to reach pinnacles and remaining unspoiled by his accomplishments. His enthusiasm comes across as so genuine that resisting the force of his personality seems impossible.
Turner himself infuses every page of the book. The other leading character is his father, Ed, who expected so much of his son as to seem unrealistic and who sometimes expressed frustrated expectations with corporal punishment. Despite the harshness, or perhaps because of it, Turner revered his father and always sensed the love through the pain. Psychologists could have a field day analyzing Turner's psyche, and perhaps biographers will join in eventually.
A casual reader of Call Me Ted, however, will get no deeper than a mantra that might fairly be summarized as "suck it up, learn at least one useful lesson from the castigation and move on."
The most fascinating portion of the book is Turner's building of Cable News Network. The deceptively simple insight during the mid-1970s that nobody had launched an all-news TV channel led Turner to fill the niche. Raising massive amounts of money did not constitute the only obstacle. Who would Turner hire to gather and present enough news and commentary to inform and entertain potential viewers 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Without knowing definitive answers, Turner forged ahead.
"I'm often asked if we ever did any formal research on the viability of 24-hour cable news, and my answer is no," Turner says. "I had spent over five years thinking about it, and it was time to get going. Henry Ford didn't need focus groups to tell him that people would prefer inexpensive, dependable cars over horses, and I doubt that Alexander Graham Bell stopped to worry about whether people would prefer speaking to each other on the phone. If viewers liked watching news on television, why wouldn't they want the option to do it at any hour of the day? And wouldn't it be great to see breaking news live, instead of having to wait to watch it on tape at 7 or 11?"
The growth of CNN into a credible around-the-clock news source changed the world as much as any institution within recent memory.
The sagas of business start-ups and failures are instructive chapter after chapter. Just as interesting are the stories of Turner's personal life.
Although none of his five children from his first and second marriages is famous, he treats each of them with respect in his autobiography, a welcome departure from so many tycoons who give short shrift to their offspring.
For readers wondering about Turner's third marriage, to actor/entrepreneur/political activist Jane Fonda, in-depth information about her does not appear until page 264, but Turner's passages about their relationship are worth the price of the book.
As with all autobiographies, it is difficult for readers to know what has been omitted. Those omissions are often more significant than the inclusions. Whatever Turner has omitted, the inclusions offer plenty of grist for understanding a man of many accomplishments.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo. His most recent book is Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.