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Avoiding Armageddon
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Ted Turner Documentaries

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Behind the Scenes at Ted Turner Documentaries

An Interview with Robert J. Wussler

Robert J. Wussler already had an illustrious career in television, serving as the youngest president of CBS and co-founder of CNN, before Ted Turner tapped him in early 2001 to head his newest enterprise. As head of Ted Turner Documentaries, Wussler has guided "Avoiding Armageddon", TTD's inaugural project, from inception to launch.

Wussler is currently working on developing future productions, but took some time to answer questions for the "Avoiding Armageddon" Web editors.

Question: Why should people watch "Avoiding Armageddon" when these issues are in the news every night?
Wussler: People should watch "Avoiding Armageddon" because it will help them understand the news of the day - how we got into this situation and how we're going to get out of it. People should know that this is a great in-depth production that puts context to today's headlines. The nightly news doesn't tell you how the decisions and events of the last century sowed the seeds for what's happening right now. "Avoiding Armageddon" tells the story of weapons of mass destruction from August of 1945 when the first atom bombs were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and it carries viewers right up to the breaking events of today.

The series also helps viewers connects the dots. It looks at how terrorists today are seeking to acquire nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and looks at the conditions that make young people desperate enough to use them.

But the story isn't all bleak. The film is called "Avoiding Armageddon" and we also look at some of the people and programs that are trying to reduce these threats. I know that this will be an extremely thoughtful piece that will spark needed dialogue about this topic.
Question: So the production gives people hope about the future?
Wussler: Definitely. We look at what can be done to secure or eliminate these weapons and highlight some of the programs that are working. We look at nation rebuilding. Nation building may not be a popular with all people. It's not popular because it is very costly. But in order to change the environments that breed terrorism, we need a free and economically stable Iraq and a free and stable Afghanistan. Rebuilding a nation like Iraq will not be an easy job with all the warring factions. But to see how this might work we also look at Iraq's neighbor, Iran. We can learn from Iran. Young people there are increasing pushing for democratic reforms.
Question: What surprised you the most as you spent two years covering these topics?
Wussler: What surprised us was the depth of the antagonism against the United States throughout much of the world. I was really amazed at how unpopular the US has become just within the last generation. World War II was the last popular war - as awful as it is to call a war popular. We were the heroes then. We were seen as heroes throughout Europe - in England and France - and even to some Germans and Japanese. We've lost that popularity. Maybe it's due to our arrogance. Maybe some resent our wealth. There's jealousy out there. But certainly the Muslim world thinks of us as not caring, arrogant. That's something we'll have to work on in the next generation.
Question: What was the hardest thing that you had to face in producing "Avoiding Armageddon"?
Wussler: Once we stuck our toes in the water - early in 2001 - we realized the global depth of these issues - weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. This was before 9/11 and the more we delved into these topics the more we realized how much ground we had to cover. At the same time, world events, such as 9/11, the Anthrax attacks North Korea, Pakistan and India and of course, Iraq, made this a quickly moving target as well.
Question: How did you manage to keep abreast with changing world conditions?
Wussler: We have editorially very savvy people working on and leading this production. News veterans Frank Sesno and Chris Guarino, who both earned their stripes in the breaking news world at CNN, are executive producers. Many of the people who worked on this program worked in the news - they're highly trained journalists. We were therefore able to move quickly as events in the world - whether it was 9/11 or the war in Iraq - changed the stories that we were covering. This is very unusual in the documentary world where stories are produced much more slowly.
Question: Tell me about Ted Turner Documentaries (TTD).
Wussler: Ted Turner founded Ted Turner Documentaries because he is concerned about these global issues. Ted is a global citizen and he worries about the global condition. He's concerned about energy and how we can support more than 6 billion people. You need energy for agriculture; you need energy to process water and to make machinery.

Ted is concerned about sustainable energy. He's concerned about water. We can't exist without renewable energy and usable water. These are some of the issues that TTD will look at as we plan future productions. We're already taking steps to look at productions that will air in late 2004 or maybe the spring of 2005. This first production will be on renewable energy. That will be followed in another 18-20 months with a documentary about water and its impact on the earth.
Question: Will these future productions also air on PBS?
Wussler: PBS is a great home for these projects. PBS is broadcast over the air and therefore reaches a 10-20 percent higher audience that if it aired on a cable network. These next productions are on issues that impact every citizen on the globe. We therefore want to reach as broad an audience as possible. But in the future for different types of production we certainly will consider working with a cable network.
Question: Why was this topic chosen for the inaugural production for TTD?
Wussler: Well, it has definitely proved to be the topic of the hour. But long before the world focused on these issues, it had been an important matter of concern for Ted Turner. We have a tape of Ted from 1981 - speaking at Georgetown University, just when CNN was getting started - in which he talks about all the things that he's working on today - supporting the UN, fighting AIDS in Africa, fighting to reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction. He has believed in this all of his life.
Question: How much was Ted Turner involved in the production of "Avoiding Armageddon"?
Wussler: When he gave me my marching orders nearly two ago, it was very simple. He told me to "make it global, make it complete." That's all he said. Ted's had nothing to do with editorial or the production of this documentary. He's very happy that it will be airing, and I think he will find the production global and complete.

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