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TV Seems To Be Center Of Our World

If nothing else, Time Warner’s tortuous quest to buy Turner Broadcasting rams home one important point: Americans take their television VERY seriously.

Almost every scuffle on the road to Time Warner’s multibillion-dollar purchase, which shareholders last approved Oct. 3, involved the TV assets of both companies. There were competitor concerns about access to Time Warner’s cable systems. Regulators worried about the same thing.

The political world entered the debate over what airs on TV in a way not seen before. And the attention? Ted Turner, Gerald Levin and Rupert Murdoch couldn’t sneeze without a phalanx of cameras recording the event.

“With the exception of sleeping, we do spend more time watching television as a society than virtually anything else,” says Charles Firestone, director of the communications and society program at the Aspen Institute, a think tank.

That fact, of course, is something Time Warner and Turner know well, and are actually counting on as they try to make their combination work. Notice, you don’t hear many people calling TV the “boob tube” anymore.

Looking for a minute at its collection of TV programming and distribution, industry jargon for TV shows and the ability to air them, the new Time Warner has an awesome collection. It’s cable systems reach 11.8 million subscribers, making it the nation’s second-largest. It has HBO, CNN, TNT, the Cartoon Network and more to grace America’s living rooms.

Of course, the combined company also offers the Warner Bros., Castle Rock and New Line movie studios; magazines like Time, Sports Illustrated and Life; and Warner Music Group, with its host of labels.

Somehow, though, it all keeps coming back to TV.

The first major problem Time Warner Inc. faced after announcing the takeover on Sept. 22, 1995, was the Federal Trade Commission, which worried that joining the nation’s No. 2 cable operator with Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the owner of CNN, would stifle competition.

Eventually an agreement was reached. Among other things, Time Warner agreed to carry a second cable news channel, MSNBC, on some of its systems in addition to CNN.

“The thing that really got interesting is the FTC got involved in content for the first time,” said Tom Wolzien, a media industry analyst at the brokerage firm Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

The issue set up another round of difficulties for Time Warner and Turner, this time from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, which happened to be starting a cable news channel of its own. It claimed Time Warner had agreed to carry its new Fox News Channel but then backed out, which Time Warner disputes.

Murdoch sued Time Warner Oct. 2, most likely aiming to push Levin, its chairman, to reconsider. Ted Turner, Time Warner’s new vice chairman, gave no quarter, calling the suit a “frivolous piece of junk.”

TV, again, took center stage.

Then, in something of a surprise, the Fox issue brought local politicians barreling into the matter like the FTC before them. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is trying to get Time Warner to carry the Fox channel on a public access channel it controls. New York State’s attorney general is investigating the dispute, and related issues, on antitrust grounds.

“There are 100 or more start-up cable networks, all of which would like carriage on Time Warner’s Manhattan system,” said Larry Gerbrandt, a senior analyst at Paul Kagan Associates Inc., a media research firm.

“What comes to mind is: Do cable operators ultimately have the right to determine what they’re going to put on?”

The issue may touch on the First Amendment, but more intimately deals with the programs and personalities Americans invite into their homes every day and night.

Americans each spent an average of 1,575 hours watching TV last year, about 4-1/3 hours a day, according to the investment bank Veronis, Suhler & Associates Inc. That compares with about 15 minutes a day reading books, and TV watching is forecast to grow to 4-1/2 hours a day by the year 2000.

So it’s perhaps no wonder that corporations with billions of dollars on the line, as well as government agencies, politicians and couch potatoes of every shape, give so much attention to the two-letter wunderbox: TV.

When asked if he liked cable, relating to a plan Time Warner is floating to place its cable systems into a stand-alone company, Turner turned the question around with a TV’ man’s glee.

“I love cable,” he said, alluding a sentence or so later to his personal reason for being enamored with television: “Cable made me rich, and I helped make cable rich.” Enough said.