As problems grip Turner and ASO, Atlanta’s image, and its sound, fade

By Tom Baxter

Between buyouts and lockouts, the visionaries who dreamed big about Atlanta’s future have to be a little dismayed right now.

Turner Broadcasting and CNN, like the Atlanta Symphony and chorus, were built on the upstart idea that a media operation based in a provincial city could compete on a global scale. The fates of all these organizations are now in the hands of much larger forces, and what happens to them will have a lot to do with the image Atlanta projects to the world.

When the history of the great technological disrupters gets written, Ted Turner deserves one of the first chapters. He scored big on the ideas that a local station broadcasting a baseball team not based in New York could have a national appeal, and that a 24/7 news channel could change the world of news. The disrupter has long since departed from the business he founded, however.

The big idea that now drives the company’s fortunes is Turner 2020, a corporate game plan to cut the work force and beef up paper profits to assuage investors second-guessing Time Warner’s rejection of Rupert Murdoch’s takeover offer.

Turner and CNN still make, by most standards, a lot of money,  but the hungry eyes of Time Warner’s bean counters have lingered with particular interest on Atlanta. The handwriting was on the wall earlier this year when CNN moved most of its on-air talent to New York, and this month Time Warner announced that Turner would be cut by 1475 employees, most of them based in Atlanta.

A company spokesman has said rumors the company intends to sell the CNN headquarters in Atlanta are “categorically untrue,” but the future for other Atlanta-based Turner operations such as Adult Swim remains murky.

Ironically, these cutbacks in Atlanta are taking place at a time when the network is facing increasing competition from regionally based news operations such as Fusion (Miami) and One America News (San Diego). Since they were announced, HBO has shaken the television world with its announcement that it will begin streaming content, followed the next day by the announcement by CBS that it would do the same.

So much for Turner 2020. The playing field is changing so fast that foreseeing 2015 is ambitious. It will take a while to know whether the changes being effected will improve Turner Broadcasting, but they are not good news for Atlanta’s national and international profile.

Neither is the prolonged lockout, the second in two years, which has silenced the city’s most celebrated sound.

Like the problems afflicting Turner and CNN, the symphony’s recent turmoil is part of the larger problems American orchestras are having staying afloat. But music director Robert Spano was also correct when he told the Washington Post recently that the conflict was “not a normal labor dispute.”

“This is a question of whether Atlanta wishes to preserve its legacy of having a great orchestra or having a minor league orchestra. It’s not a question of payroll or health care or anything else,” Spano said.

Since the days of Robert Shaw, bigness, for better or worse, has been wired into the identity of this symphony and chorus. It’s the gigantic, full-throated pieces with choirs and brass in the balcony which have wowed audiences in New York and Berlin and garnered a trove of Grammy Awards. A smaller orchestra would only call more attention to the deficiencies of the hall and be a harder sell.

If anything, both sides of this dispute should be talking about how to preserve at least the impression of bigness. Instead the struggle has centered very publicly around the question of whether the board of the Woodruff Arts Center can dictate the size of the orchestra, an issue which goes to the heart of what Spano was saying.

Federal mediation has so far produced little more than an exchange of accusations about who’s holding things up,  and the public dialogue is becoming increasingly bitter.

At times in a recent AJC interview, WAC board chairman Douglas Hertz seemed to be doing a bad Frank Underwood imitation,  suggesting that the putative public support for the musicians was really only their friends. But on one point, he was undeniably on target.

“If the public cared maybe we wouldn’t be in this situation. When you’ve got less than 5,000 donors in a metropolitan area of 5 million, that’s my concern,” Hertz said.

The public should care. And particularly, so should those who have a direct stake in the impression Atlanta makes on the world.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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