Ted Turner still has an influence on the fate of Turner Broadcasting System and other program entities within the AOL Time Warner kingdom, as he surveys them from a lofty board seat. But, Atlanta, U.S.-based Ted Turner Documentaries and Ted Turner Pictures, both founded in June 2001, represent the only media investments for which Turner plays an active creative role. ‘These are personal [ventures],’ says Robert Wussler, who currently serves as president and ceo of Ted Turner Documentaries as well as Ted Turner Pictures. ‘Ted doesn’t want to lose a lot of money on them,’ he continues, ‘but he isn’t interested in making a lot of money on these things either. He does this for the history books.’
Those who have kept track of Turner’s adventures over the decades aren’t surprised he chose Wussler to help him make that history. Their relationship began in 1980, a few years after Wussler ended a 21-year stint with cbs, where he rose to president of the U.S. network. Wussler heard from a friend that Turner was looking for someone to help him build TBS. ‘I told my friend, ‘Turner’s crazy,” Wussler recalls with a laugh. ‘And he said, ‘You know what? You’re crazy too.”
Over the years, the two men have used their ‘craziness’ to create CNN, TNT, launch the Goodwill Games sporting event and spawn a large body of documentaries that were televised on the Turner networks. Titles among the latter include The World of Audubon specials that ran from 1981 to 1989, and the weekly National Geographic Explorer series, which ran from 1984 to 1989 (coproduced with National Geographic). Wussler ‘opened a lot of doors for Ted,’ says Arthur Sando, senior VP of communications for Santa Monica, U.S.-based CBS Enterprises, and the head of corporate communications for tbs during Wussler’s tenure. ‘Bob helped Ted realize his vision.’
The first program out of Ted Turner Documentaries is the latest big-picture collaboration between Wussler and the company’s namesake. The film, Avoiding Armageddon, is an eight-hour, four-part series about the threats posed by weapons of mass destruction. It’s distributed internationally by Burbank, U.S.-based Warner Bros. International TV Distribution, and had a unique debut in the U.S. on April 14. With the support of its presenting station, WETA in Washington, D.C., Armageddon secured separate clearances on all 349 PBS stations in primetime and garnered an average 2 rating, Wussler said.
But, the vision for Armageddon goes well beyond ratings. It involves CDs, a coffee-table book, DVDs, videos, T-shirts, coffee mugs, key rings and promotional tie-ins with retailers such as Starbucks and The Body Shop. Says Dalton Delan, exec VP and chief programming officer of WETA, ‘The only other [doc-maker] we work with on an ongoing basis that uses that full-out army campaign is Ken Burns.’ Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the backing of a billionaire; Turner invested US$10 million in Armageddon‘s production and promotion – 100% of the budget. But, Wussler says the companies hope to reduce Turner’s investment in future productions to 75% or 50%.
The doc unit aims to roll out a film every year, with the majority of productions handled in-house. Many of the planned docs fall into the issue-oriented realm, a genre Wussler gravitates toward. Wussler and Turner also aren’t relying on the TBS channels for their new films. Wussler is in talks with cbs about a definitive look at Hitler. ‘I want to see this get in the libraries of every institution of higher learning, so 100 years from now there is a record,’ he says. After all, history is the name of the game.