Ashton Kutcher is poised to single-handedly conquer CNN.
On Twitter, anyway.
Kutcher, the actor and new-media entrepreneur, was in a near dead heat with the cable news network late Thursday to become operator of the most-followed account on the micro-messaging service.
He did so by positioning himself as the ringleader of a frenetic digital circus act whose cast has swollen to include Larry King, video game maker Electronic Arts Inc., a 25-year-old Web developer from London and hundreds of thousands of online participants.
The main event? Sometime Thursday night or early Friday, either Kutcher or CNN is expected to be the first to have 1 million Twitter users signed up to follow their tweets, a milestone in the explosive growth of the young company.
The winner will donate 10,000 mosquito nets to charity in time for World Malaria Day on April 25 -- a gift Kutcher guessed would cost $100,000.
Earlier this week, Kutcher realized he had only about 50,000 fewer Twitter followers than the cable news network -- each had more than 800,000.
"I just found it astonishing that one person can actually have as big a voice online as what an entire media company can," Kutcher said in a video he posted online. He then vowed to "ding-dong ditch" CNN mogul Ted Turner's Atlanta home if he arrived at the milestone first.
But it was Larry King who answered the door. Via an online video of his own, the veteran talk show host invited Kutcher to his show tonight to discuss the gauntlet the actor had thrown at Turner.
Old-media boosterism mixed with new-media zealotry was too much hype for Electronic Arts to ignore. The video game publisher offered to award Kutcher's millionth follower a free copy of every game it produced this year, plus a virtual cameo in an upcoming title.
But all the hubbub overshadowed a strange element of the story. CNN announced Wednesday that until this week, it had never actually owned the Twitter account Kutcher was challenging. Rather, James Cox, the 25-year-old Brit, had quietly been running the account -- called @CNNBrk (for breaking news) -- since January 2007.
According to KC Estenson, head of CNN's online operation, Cox had owned and maintained the account in secret -- albeit with the permission and oversight of CNN -- for nearly two years.
"We've been managing the feed through him," said Estenson, noting the huge increase in the number of Twitter followers since the November election. "As Twitter took off and became more prominent, we decided it was time to take our engagement and make it a marriage."
Neither Cox nor CNN would specify the terms of the exchange, noting only that Cox had for some time been contracted by the network as a Web consultant.
For his part, Cox said, "It's not them paying me for the account. It's CNN and I figuring out the relationship and taking it from there."
Cox said that before Twitter, he had been wanting to find a way to take CNN's breaking news e-mail alerts and send them to his mobile phone.
It took "a couple of hours of hacking" to write a script that would automatically digest CNN's news alert e-mails and post them to the Twitter account. After that, Cox mostly sat back and watched as the popularity of the mobile news ticker he invented began to snowball.
"We grew to about 100,000 by ourselves," Cox said. "After that we had help from the Twitter suggested users list and on-screen exposure," meaning television promotion by CNN. Several anchors on the news channel also have Twitter accounts.
Estenson said Web traffic from the account "is a nice addition to the site but not a meaningful traffic driver when you're doing a million uniques and a billion page views a month. But this an important part of our audience -- the part of our audience that's the most active and engaged."