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Yet Another Turner Turnabout - Or Is It?

Pigeonholing Ted Turner, the party-hearty America's Cup-winning yacht skipper, cable superstation pioneer, and owner of...well, New Mexico, is risky business.

In 1980, he launched, amidst giggles from the broadcast networks, CNN. A year later came the Headline News cable network, and the snickers turned to laughter from the experts who said his vision for cable was doomed to failure. In 1985 came his most audacious gambit to date: he denounced the liberal bias of the networks and, forging an alliance with Jesse Helms, tried to buy CBS. The takeover bid failed, and carrying over a billion dollars in personal debt, a badly wounded Turner retreated.

Only to re-emerge as a left-wing activist. Through high-profile documentaries like "Portrait of the Soviet Union" and outrageous statements he cozied up to the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev and Fidel Castro. He crusaded for abortion rights, airing "Abortion: For Survival" while ridiculing pro-lifers as "bozos" and "idiots"; he called Christianity "a religion for losers" and dismissed the Ten Commandments as "obsolete." Many believed Turner's transformation to radical ideologue was complete when he married Jane Fonda in 1991.

Lost in the white-heat fury of political discourse was another side of Mr. Turner. Founder of a series of entertainment networks and owner of several movie companies, Turner has made a genuine effort to improve the quality of television programming for families. (A glaring exception is his leftist eco-cartoon "Captain Planet and the Planeteers.") The staple offerings on WTBS, his superstation, are "Andy Griffith Show" reruns and Atlanta Braves games. Turner Network Television (TNT) has shown Biblical miniseries like "Abraham," "Moses," and "Joseph"; "Samson and Delilah " is next. He produced the highly acclaimed Civil War film "Gettysburg," released to theaters in 1993 and shown on TNT the next year.

Now, Turner's fighting again. But this time his critics are on the left.

First, he caught flak this spring when he canceled plans to air the telefilm "Bastard Out of Carolina" because of its graphic treatment of child sexual abuse. (In one scene, a man punches his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, then rapes her.) Apparently, when TNT bought the rights to the novel of the same name, it had in mind a version of the story suitable for basic cable, which clearly is not what director Anjelica Huston envisioned. Eventually the pay-cable channel Showtime acquired "Bastard" and will air it in mid-December.

The light shower over "Bastard" was followed by a raucous thunderstorm concerning "Crash," a Canadian movie about people sexually excited by...automobile wrecks. "Crash," according to Degen Pener of Entertainment Weekly magazine, "involves [actors Holly] Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and James Spader in seemingly endless ambisexual couplings. Yet it is not without admirers." Of course it isn't. This is Hollywood, after all. Writer/director Paul Schrader had nothing to do with "Crash" but nonetheless touted it as "sort of the acme of filmmaking," perhaps, one supposes, in the tradition of "The Last Temptation of Christ," which screenplay he did write.

"Crash" was slated for release in early October, but Turner, who owns its distribution company, Fine Line Features, saw it and "yanked it off the schedule. It bothered me," he stated at a November 4 luncheon at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York. "The people with warped minds are gonna like it, though. I mean, it's really weird...Imagine the first teenager who decides to have sex while driving a hundred miles an hour, and probably the movie will get 'em to do that."

The withdrawal of "Crash" elicited predictable squawking from predictable quarters. Its director, David Cronenberg, huffed that Turner's action "amount[ed] to behind-the-scenes [what else?] censorship." Co-star Hunter was even more eloquent, accusing Turner of a "moral fascism" which was "reminiscent of Jesse Helms."

As it happens, Fine Line will issue "Crash" in March, reportedly because when Turner bought the company, he agreed to leave ultimate creative decisions to its hands-on executives. Nonetheless, Turner has put the industry on notice, and from what I understand from his associates, we can expect more of the same from him in the future.

Turner had other things to say at that New York luncheon: "The test of a [television] program?is," he suggested, "'Is this a program that you would be proud and happy to have your children sit and watch, and is it a program that if your mother and father saw it...would they be proud of you?'"

Those were basically the same words Ted Turner used in 1984, at a conference sponsored by a conservative think tank, to an audience that responded with a standing ovation. Like I said, a tough man to pigeonhole.