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Bill Tush Leaves Turner Empire

January 2, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Bill Tush’s exit from Cable News Network marks the end of an era that predates even his 18 years on ``Showbiz Today.″

Tush was working for Ted Turner before CNN was ever thought of, back when Turner’s Channel 17, a future superstation destined to blanket the country, was seen only by Atlantans, few of whom watched it.

During nearly three decades at Turner Broadcasting, Tush served his audience in a variety of on-air roles.

At the same time, he served his boss as a steadfast confederate, an easygoing wise guy who, early on, was nothing less than the public face of Turner’s scrappy fledgling empire.

Today that empire is vast yet dwarfed by the corporate leviathan it’s part of. Worse, last year’s merger of TBS owner Time Warner and AOL largely stripped Turner of his powers. Clearly, an epoch had come to a close.

All the more so now, with Tush gone.

But why did he stay? ``People have asked, `Why didn’t you leave years ago?‴ says Tush. ``I’d answer, ‘Why leave? It’s too much fun!’

``I went from working for a broken-down TV station to working for one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world _ and never changed my resume. I mean, my resume says I weigh 155 pounds and I’m single. That was three wives ago!″

After spending the morning clearing out his office at CNN’s New York bureau, Tush, a boyish-looking 53, sits down to lunch. He looks chipper, relaxed.

``No regrets,″ says he.

Or, rather, only one: The way news of his departure was lumped in last month with the announcement of several CNN firings.

He explains that his leaving was by choice, precipitated by CNN’s dearth of show business coverage (with a consequent lack of anything for him to do) in the somber weeks after Sept. 11. The world changed that day and, for the foreseeable future, Tush reasoned, so had CNN.

He was ready for a change, too.

``I wasn’t working for Ted anymore,″ notes Tush (whom Turner, in a statement, called ``as loyal as he is talented″).

``I’ve been there 28 years and my job always came first.″ But now, with Lisa, his wife of three years, ``I’m happy with my personal life for the first time in my life. I’m not dying to be on television.″

It was in 1974 that the Pittsburgh-born radio personality broke into TV by wangling a part-time job at Atlanta’s WTCG (grandly signifying ``Turner Communications Group″), a local non-network UHF outlet with a minuscule audience and scant programming besides pro wrestling and old movies.

Hired to tape announcements an hour each day, he soon was on camera as the overnight newscaster, reading wire copy between the movies that ran until dawn.

``Then, one night, someone in the studio threw a balled-up piece of paper at me,″ Tush recalls. ``It bounced off my head while I kept on reading. And one thing led to another.″

With Turner’s amused blessing, Tush and his cronies pushed to come up with new foolishness night after night.

Tush introduced a correspondent called the Unknown Newsman who wore a paper sack on his head. Another night, just before airtime, he fed peanut butter to a German shepherd clad in shirt and tie. As the pooch worked its jaws to swallow the goop, it appeared to be co-anchoring the newscast.

Here, a quarter-century ago, was Comedy Central’s ``The Daily Show″ stripped down to raw abandon, on zero bucks. Around Atlanta, Tush began to gain a cult following.

Then Turner had the wacky inspiration to transmit Channel 17 by satellite. Just one result of the re-christened WTBS Superstation: Tush became a hit in Alaska, where the hamlet of Valdez tapped him to be grand marshal of their winter festival parade. He bought snow boots and grabbed a flight.

But he already had proved he was game for anything. ``Besides the crazy news, I hosted the Saturday and Sunday morning movies. I did all the commercials. I moderated the public-affairs talk show.″ Sometimes he pushed a camera or drove to the post office to pick up the mail.

``I had my own TV station to play with,″ he says. And, with it, a mandate to play out the whims of his mercurial and charismatic boss.

For instance, one day Turner returned from lunch with a brainstorm. ``He said, ‘We’re gonna start a variety show. We’re gonna have everything: comedy, singin’, maybe even wrasslin’. You’re gonna host it!′ I said, `OK.‴

Premiering on WTBS in January 1980, ``Tush″ proved to be an inventive sketch-comedy hour with a troupe including the brilliant Jan Hooks (who went on to ``Saturday Night Live″ and ``3rd Rock from the Sun″) and Bonnie and Terry Turner (creators of ``That ’70s Show″).

``Tush″ ran for 22 episodes, then abruptly got the ax. ``For some reason, Ted wasn’t fond of it,″ recalls its star. ``I said, ’So we’ll do something else fun.‴

Soon, Tush was jetting north each week to host ``Atlantic City Alive,″ a sort of $1.98 ``Ed Sullivan Show″ and ``probably one of the worst shows ever on television,″ he says with a laugh.

For a time he was dispatched to Los Angeles for an entertainment talk show airing on Turner’s new network, CNN.

Then, in 1983, he helped introduce CNN’s ``Showbiz Today,″ which brought him to New York.

``I interviewed movie stars and TV stars. I did the Academy Awards every year. I went to Cannes. I’ve seen and done a lot of things I never would have done,″ says Tush, even now sounding a bit amazed.

Then, idly envisioning the day he takes another job, he offers a scenario.

``If I had my choice,″ he muses, ``I’d like to find a local UHF station and do a crazy news show in the middle of the night.″

Grab the Jif! Cue the dog!

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Elsewhere in television ...

AFI AWARDS: Another awards show! The inaugural AFI Awards will be broadcast live 8 p.m. EST Saturday on CBS. Nominations in 19 categories were made by two committees comprising experts from across the film and television. The awards will be selected by a 100-person AFI jury. (The American Film Institute is an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of film and television.)

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org

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