TED TURNER CRIES FOUL AT TIME WARNER

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It was Ted Turner's turn last week to do the talking in the media merger feeding frenzy.

The voluble chairman and president of Turner Broadcasting System lashed out at Time Warner. He said the media giant is thwarting his effort to buy NBC in an effort to snatch the network itself.

"Time Warner is trying to get a network and is holding me back from doing so, and that's not right," said Mr. Turner, whose company is 20%-owned by Time Warner.

Aside from Turner, the list of suitors remained stable. Walt Disney Co., Viacom, Tele-Communications Inc., ITT Corp. and Time Warner are among those said to be vying for ABC, CBS or NBC, even though none of those networks has publicly confirmed its interest in a sale.

Disney reportedly dropped out of the running for NBC, but no company has made a formal bid yet.

"I think after the initial excitement over all the deals, the players sort of stepped back and realized the prices are very high, not just in terms of monetary costs, but in terms of the kinds of changes they have to make in their own organizations to extract value from the networks," said Michael Wolf, a partner and head of the media and entertainment practice at Booz, Allen & Hamilton, New York.

Still, would-be acquirers are rushing to beat the clock, sensing a window of opportunity preceding next year's demise of the financial interest and syndication rules that now prohibit networks from producing a majority of the shows they air.

And a rebounding ad environment is spurring renewed interest in broadcasters, jacking up asking prices in the process.

"I think all three networks will be realigned with other companies," Mr. Turner said. "It's an absolute tragedy that we'll end up with four or five mega-companies that will control everything we see. And that's very distressing to me. I think Disney will get a network-probably-and I think [Viacom Chairman] Sumner Redstone will get a network-probably-and I think Time Warner will get a network-probably. And Rupert [Murdoch] already has one" with Fox.

Mr. Turner threatened to sell TBS if differences with Time Warner aren't resolved. He called Mr. Murdoch a "mad genius," and termed him the most likely buyer.

Meanwhile, NBC President-CEO Robert Wright told Electronic Media that parent General Electric Co. is shifting its focus to finding a minority partner for the network. That strategy reportedly has caused dissension within Time Warner about making a bid.

More importantly, the $5 billion figure being floated for an NBC bid would severely hamper any acquirer's ability to invest in other projects, especially for already debt-burdened companies like Time Warner. On a lesser scale, a network buyout by Viacom or Time Warner also would conflict with each company's plans to develop new networks under the Paramount and Warner Bros. banners.

Viacom last week completed its acquisition of Blockbuster Entertainment Group (see story on Page 1), clearing the way for the pursuit of its only missing media link: a broadcast network that can distribute the vast array of programming from its Paramount, MTV Networks, Spelling Entertainment Group and other units.

Steven W. Colford contributed to this story.

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