“We are already the first global broadcaster,” Ted Turner says of Cable News Network, which he founded in 1980. “There’s virtually nowhere on earth you can’t pick up CNN with a satellite dish.”
Turner, now 54, attended Brown University and served an apprenticeship in his father’s Atlanta-based outdoor-advertising company. In 1965, he entered broadcasting with the purchase of a radio station in Georgia’s capital city.
“I had been working in the billboard business since I was 12 years old,” Turner recalls, “and I considered it boring. I wanted to have a programming component, something more exciting and interesting, rather than just advertising.”
In 1970, Turner purchased a failing UHF channel in Atlanta, channel 17. “I was unable to acquire a VHF network affiliate,” Turner observes, “because, fortunately, at that time I didn’t have enough money to buy one.” Channel 17 became WTBS and the flagship for the Turner Broadcasting Service.
“At the time, UHF television was considered the lunatic fringe of the broadcasting business,” Turner says. “In 1969 and 1970 the station was losing about $1 million a year. The first thing to do was to get it to break even.”
Within a few years, Turner made it the most profitable station of its type in the country. Turner counter-programmed his UHF station against network-affiliate competition with a mix of Star Trek, Atlanta Braves baseball and classic movies that he intended to appeal to a family audience. Turner continues to champion such programming.
“There’s far too much gratuitous violence, sleaze and stupidity on television,” Turner says. “I know that it sells, but so does heroin and cocaine. Saying ‘That’s what the public wants’ is a cop-out. We really try very, very hard to exercise a strong sense of responsibility about what we broadcast. We try to stay away from gratuitous sex and violence and just plain stupidity and to have more thought provoking programs.”
In the late 1970s, Turner realized that he could distribute his UHF station to cable-TV systems around the country via a domestic communications satellite.
“Commercial communications satellites didn’t come along until about 1975,” Turner says, “and I read in one of the trade journals that Home Box Office was considering going up on the satellite, so I started researching it.”
Former President Jimmy Carter, whose association with Turner goes back to Carter’s governorship of Georgia, says of Turner: “Ted has a remarkable capacity for seeking out and nurturing the connections in our society and among nations, organizations, people and the planet. In all his ventures, he has brought a conscience with him. He has put his corporate resources to work in the service of humanity, in particular to benefit the environment and to advance peaceful cooperation between the superpowers.
“His many successes have come in the face of skepticism, jealousy, competition and personal and financial obstacles. Yet his vision has remained clear, his sense of purpose unwavering.”
Gerald M. Levin, president and co-CEO of Time-Warner Inc., agrees that Turner’s talent for connecting disparate ideas lies at the foundation of his remarkable career. “One of Ted’s great attributes is making connections that no one else makes. He just hooked up the idea that if we were successful [with HBO] there would be cable systems with earth stations and he could take this local station and make it national. Ted was also determined to persist against what everybody said were impossible regulatory obstacles. People don’t give Ted enough credit for thinking through some things.”
Turner created the basic-cable tier by insisting that WTBS be distributed without a direct charge to cable subscribers.
Says Levin, “We accept [basic cable] now, but at that time it was very early in the game. But, again, Ted connected the idea that because you have this double-barreled power of advertising revenue and payments from the cable operator, you can make money by getting a relatively small viewership.”
With TBS established, Turner launched CNN on June 1, 1980. Its sister channel, CNN Headline News, debuted 18 months later.
“My model for CNN,” Turner says, “was all-news radio. A disaster is a disaster; whether it’s an earthquake, a war, pestilence or famine. What is the difference between a fire in New York and a fire in the Persian Gulf? Obviously, here in the United States we made television news much more complete and convenient to watch because it’s available 24 hours a day, and we’re able to cover the stories in greater depth than the old-line networks.
“Probably the biggest impact on a global basis is the democratization of news all over the world. It used to be that the Western World got its news more quickly and more accurately than Katmandu. Now, the president of the United States and the president of Nigeria have exactly the same information access. Before, there was a tremendous gap between the accessibility of information.”
President Carter observes, “When I travel to foreign countries, time and again I am struck by the fact that the quickest and most trusted source of news for heads of state and other top officials is CNN. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of CNN to global sharing and understanding.
“Ted’s personal goal of bringing the various people of the world closer together has been advanced by the tremendous reach of CNN and its continued sensitivity to an international audience. The creation of CNN has done more to close the gaps of misunderstanding among the world’s people than any American enterprise in recent memory.”
Levin also credits Turner for CNN’s credibility. “Turner is a pretty outspoken person,” says Levin, “and at first everybody worried that he might impose himself on this news channel. But he didn’t do that at the beginning and he hasn’t done it at all, for which I give him great credit. He’s become quite a mellowed statesman now, but I remember that during his brash period we’d have meetings and he would never sit down. I recall one meeting when he stood on my desk to make a point.”
In 1988, Turner’s launch of the Turner Network Television channel was the most successful in cable history. Its core programming is the MGM film library, which Turner purchased for that purpose. A Children’s Cartoon Channel, based on Turner’s acquisition of the Hanna-Barbera film library, is expected within the next year. He also plans to distribute his entertainment programming globally.
“We’ve already exported TNT with a special edition that’s available in Central America and South America in English and Spanish, and Portuguese for Brazil. We haven’t gone global with entertainment yet, but we plan to eventually.”
Turner won Time Magazine’s Man of the Year Award in 1991 and the Academy’s Governors Award earlier this year.
He is also proud that TBS has colorized many classic films in its MGM inventory. “And don’t forget I’m the guy who brought color to black-and-white movies,” Turner adds. “I like it. The world could stand to be a little more colorful, don’t you think?”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Ted Turner's induction in 1992.