ATLANTA—According to a videotaped message airing exclusively on CNN, media mogul Ted Turner has sent himself back in time to January 2000 to avert the catastrophic merger of America Online and Time Warner.
"By the time you see this, I will have returned to Year Zero of the AOL Time Warner merger in a time machine of my own design," said Turner in the three-minute message, which first aired Monday on the Turner-owned cable news channel. "I will doggedly pursue [AOL Time Warner chairman] Steve Case and [former Time Warner CEO] Gerald Levin to stop this horribly misguided union of New Media and Old Media. And I will not return to my own time until the merger has been prevented."
AOL acquired Time Warner on Jan. 12, 2000, when the companies boasted a combined market value of $181.5 billion. The alliance quickly proved ill-fated, as few of the media synergies it promised proved feasible or profitable. This January, amid a plunging stock price and news that the new company posted a record $99 billion loss in 2002, Turner announced his resignation as AOL Time Warner vice-chairman.
Turner spokespersons say the mysterious, unseen time-travel device was developed under a veil of extreme secrecy at his Techwood Drive headquarters in Atlanta. Little else about the machine or Turner's mission is known.
"From what we understand, the machine acts only on living human flesh," Turner spokesman Marty Wells said. "If Mr. Turner has been successful, he has materialized in January 2000 completely nude, with no ID or money, save for a few billion dollars in Year 2000-value Time Warner stock. To survive, he'll need to steal clothing and rely on whatever crude weapons he can fashion with his bare hands."
Market watchers have expressed skepticism about Turner's chances.
"The merger occurred at the height of the Internet bubble, when conventional wisdom held that so-called 'New Economy' companies like Yahoo!, Excite, and AOL were the wave of the future," said Maria Bartiromo, host of CNBC's Closing Bell. "In such a heady, bullish financial climate, [Turner's] warnings of impending doom will likely be dismissed by Case and Levin as the ravings of a madman."
Corporate hubris, physicists say, is not the only obstacle facing Turner on his dramatic mission.
"Altering the flow of time is a dangerous and complex proposition," said Dr. Arthur Wistrom, a University of Chicago physics professor. "If Turner is not careful, he may unintentionally change the course of his own history, causing, for example, something to go awry with his loving, happy marriage to Jane Fonda."
Compounding Turner's troubles is an unconfirmed report that enemy forces within AOL have responded with their own time-travel initiative, dispatching back in time hundreds of cyborg drones disguised as ordinary mailmen to deliver CD-ROMs promising thousands of hours of free AOL access to every human household.
"Why anyone at AOL would want to do such a thing remains a mystery, as they lost more in the merger than anyone," Bartiromo said. "Perhaps somewhere within the vast Internet network of AOL subscribers, some malevolent cybernetic force has achieved sentience and is bent on the destruction of its human masters."
Turner's time-jump represents the latest in a series of high-stakes gambits for the maverick multi-billionaire.
"From his conversion of an independent Atlanta TV station into a cable 'superstation' to his purchase of the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Hawks, his launch of CNN, and the historic merger of his media empire with Time Warner, Turner has built a career on taking big risks," Fortune reporter Doug Bergeron said. "But traveling back in time all by himself, a lone corporate soldier from the future facing nigh-impossible odds—that is arguably the most daring move he has made yet as an entrepreneur."
Though the odds are stacked against Turner, many are betting on him to prevail.
"The AOL Time Warner merger reduced Turner to a mere figurehead and ultimately cost him nearly $7 billion of his personal fortune," investment guru Warren Buffett said. "A lesser man would have crumbled in the face of such adversity. Yet we are talking about the man who in 1977 piloted his yacht Courageous to victory in the America's Cup, who in 1997 pledged to donate $1 billion to the U.N., and who, according to messages we have received from the future, will in 2013 single-handedly defeat the alien warrior-financier Zygax The Investorator in hand-to-hand combat. He is not just a brave corporate warrior. He is our economy's last, best hope."