Ted Turner and "The Monkey Show"
Many attributes Ted Turner apart, but his nearly complete sense of honesty is the one I find most unique. Ted tells the truth, whether you want to hear it or not. Frankly, it’s Ted’s almost childlike honesty that gets him into trouble much of the time, but it is also one of the reasons he was so great to work for. In a big-media world often characterized by executive intrigue, you always knew where Ted stood, and never wasted time or energy trying to read tea leaves or interpret hidden agendas.
While I was president of TBS, we produced a series called “The Chimp Channel,” a half-hour (and half-baked?) sitcom featuring chimpanzees in the leading roles. Ted loved the concept and was eager to see the pilot as soon as it was ready, nagging me about it whenever he saw. When it was finally ready, we sent it to him at his Montana ranch via FedEx. Coincidentally, included in this package was a copy of “Silent Predators,” a new original movie we had just completed, also for air on TBS. “Silent Predators” was a prototypical made-for-TV movie. Starring Harry Hamlin, it had a classic “high concept” plot: an unsuspecting town is overrun by killer rattlesnakes after ignoring the warnings of the only man who could have saved them. (Well aware that rattlers weren’t “silent” we stuck with the title as it researched well!) Our viewers loved these kinds of movies but Ted hated them, preferring pro-social documentaries and epic films like “Gettysburg.”
Regardless of where he was in the world, Ted always watched tapes and responded quickly, so after the package left, I spent two days nervously awaiting his call. When it came, he was upbeat and loud. (When Ted was on the line, I would often hold the headset a couple of inches from my ear.) “Hey, pal, I got the monkey show and I like it! It’s funny, real funny, a little risqué, but I really liked it. Don’t know what kind of ratings it’ll get but it’s a good show. Way to go, pal – keep up the good work!”
Relieved and elated, I thanked Ted, and just as I was about to hang up, he added, “That snake movie’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen! It’s just awful, I hated it. But, you know, I bet it’ll do great in the ratings. Alright pal, I’ll talk to you later!” And that was the entire conversation.
I called our programming people and let them know we got split decision from Montana. But what was great for all of us was that we knew for sure how Ted felt. He liked the monkeys and hated the snakes, and we knew he was being completely honest about both. And with that clarity, we all got on with our work.
Why is it so hard to tell the truth when it involves giving someone negative feedback? As someone who likes to be liked, I've struggled with this, glossing over - or skipping - delivering bad news and putting off criticism for another day (or worse, another audience). But being honest with bad news or criticism can actually make the positive feedback more credible. And when your colleagues know that you'll tell them what you think to their face, they won't waste precious time and energy wondering if you're talking behind their back or disguising your true feelings.
January 2, 2018