Turner, Ted (1938—)

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Turner, Ted (1938—)

Ted Turner, a flamboyant Southern entrepreneur and sportsman, first came to prominence in 1977 when, as the skipper of the winning yacht in the America's Cup race, he shocked the rather staid community of Newport Rhode Island with his wild celebrations and partying. Yet, this notoriety masked the fact that he was also in the process of creating television's first "superstation," a local television station that, through the power of satellite communications, could broadcast its signal to cable-equipped households across the United States and ultimately around the world. In the process, he reinvented television viewing patterns for most Americans and forced the networks to rethink their traditional broadcasting options.

His career, in fact, began very quietly in 1970 when his Turner Communications, a small family-owned and billboard-oriented advertising agency, merged with Atlanta's Rice Broadcasting and took over a controlling interest in local television station WTCG. During the first year of the Turner regime, the station's most popular show became Georgia Championship Wrestling. Ironically, news programming, for which Turner would later become famous, received scant attention, being broadcast only at three or four a.m. when there were few viewers. Even at that hour, serious news stories were, for the most part, treated "tongue in cheek" and more as entertainment than as a public service. To Turner, there seemed to be no such thing as good news and viewers were regarded as being much better off watching reruns of old television series instead of dreary recounts of what went on in the world.

His purchase of the television station, however, led him to a development that would turn television on its head. Turner eventually discovered the existence of a communications satellite in a geosynchronous orbit over the earth that could be used on a 24-hour basis by anyone willing to pay the rent. The technology which was then in its infancy and which relied on the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for its positioning was not highly publicized and had been, as a consequence, under-utilized by broadcasting entities, few of which saw the possibilities for global programming. Yet, to the flamboyant Turner, the idea of a small local station being able to send its signal all over the world made perfect sense.

Beginning with a tall television tower and a lone earth station microwave dish maintained by one technician, Turner proudly proclaimed his operation to be the world's first "superstation." Utilizing an eclectic blend of movies, sports, reruns of discontinued television series, and his own original programming produced by a subsidiary company, the station achieved the status of a basic cable selection on most systems around the country and, in fact, probably helped spread the growth of cable during the next decade. Under Turner's direction, the station went from a money losing operation to generating a profit of almost $2 million within its first 18 months. It was renamed WTBS in 1979 to reflect its corporate affiliation and became the primary revenue source financing the next components of the Turner empire.

Doing a flip-flop on his anti-news stance, Turner expanded his broadcasting base the following year by creating the innovative Cable News Network (CNN), a 24-hour news service carried by satellite to cable systems around the world. He correctly noted that the proliferation of cable programming had placed its emphasis on entertainment programming, ignoring the fact that continuous newscasting would be an ideal melding with cable since public interest was high and because the traditional networks dismissed 24-hour news service as too costly. To Turner, however, the financial risk was a gamble worth taking. He put the service on the air in June 1980 by leveraging most of his holdings and routing all of the profits from WTBS and his other interests into the fledgling enterprise.

At first, the station was regarded as something of a novelty by the critics and the networks alike, who dismissed the ambitious programming as "light weight journalism" at best. Yet, the new network with news bureaus around the world began to get its reporters to breaking stories well before the established news organizations. By 1990, it surpassed the networks with its on-the-spot coverage of the Persian Gulf War and established itself as the premier television news service in the United States. As a result, by the mid-1990s, it had expanded its viewership to 140 countries around the world and had created such off-shoots as CNN Headline News and CNN International.

In 1986, Turner took another risk by purchasing the Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM)/United Artists motion picture studio in a complicated cash/stock transaction valued at approximately $1.5 billion. In order to finance his portion, Turner had to break up the studio and divest himself of a number of subdivisions to keep the money coming in. He immediately sold the United Artists portion of the studio back to financier Kirk Kerkorian, who had sold him the entire studio to begin with; he also included MGM's film and television production and distribution in the Kerkorian package. Additionally, he sold the lot itself to television production entity Lorimar-Telepictures and wound up only with MGM's large library of motion pictures, which included the pre-1948 Warner Bros. and RKO films. Turner was now the owner of perhaps the largest library of filmed entertainment in the world—sufficient programming to keep WTBS going forever, in addition to being able to market the films on video and lease them to other networks.

Turner's next move, the controversial "colorizing" of many of the black-and-white films in his new library, raised the ire of film purists aghast at the thought of seeing such classics as Casablanca (1941) and Citizen Kane (1941) broadcast with computer-enhanced artificial color. Congress even got into the act by holding hearings to determine authorship and copyright issues relating to film to see if the Southern mogul actually had the right to contradict the original artistic intent by introducing color. The issue was never resolved but it did sensitize Turner to the issues involved, and his company has subsequently played a leading role in film preservation efforts in the United States. He also established the Turner Classic Movie channel in the early 1990s to show motion pictures in their original manifestations, with a knowledgeable host to introduce each one and talk about its production history.

Turner has also played a leading role in a number of other altruistic endeavors as well. For most of his life, he has been an ardent environmentalist, but in the mid-1980s, he began to take an equally strong stand against warfare by exploring viable methods of bringing people together. In 1985, he founded the Better World Society to produce film and television documentaries to educate people about such issues as pollution, hunger, and the perils of the arms race. He followed this a year later with The Goodwill Games, a scaled down version of the Olympic Games in an effort to promote brotherhood and world peace. He lost $26 million on the first games staged in Moscow in 1986, and followed that with another $44 million shortfall in the 1991 games held in Seattle. In 1992, he created the "Turner Tomorrow Awards" to provide an incentive for writers around the world to come up with positive solutions to problems effecting the world.

With his 1991 marriage to actress and political activist Jane Fonda, he expanded his concerns to share and support his longtime interest in Native American issues. He produced a number of documentaries and fact-based feature films on his TNT channel to show the development of American history from the Native American point of view and to spotlight the contributions of indigenous Americans to the United States. In recent years, he has expanded his commitment to his social concerns by creating a list of volunteer initiatives that individuals can do to make the world a better place. The tenets include initiatives on family size, pollution, and conservation of the environment.

In 1997, with his typical flamboyance, Turner pledged a gift of $1 billion to the United Nations to be distributed over the following decade. He emphasized, however, that the money could not be used for administrative or "housekeeping expenses." It had to be used for programs such as disease control, cleaning up landmines, UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) child-ren's programs, refugee relief, and peacekeeping.

The proposed gift to the United Nations was based on money that he received in stock shares for merging his company with Time Warner in 1997 to form the world's largest media company. Under the terms of the deal, Time Warner gained access to Turner's interests in cable and satellite television and, importantly, the rights to the library of pre-1948 Warner Bros. films, RKO films, and the MGM collection. In effect, Time Warner reclaimed its heritage and then some. The possibilities of commercial exploitation of the Turner materials in the Warner Bros. stores, and fledgling theme parks with videos, new character licensing, and reissues of restored films is seemingly unlimited. In return, Turner became Time Warner's largest stockholder, with "clout" only surpassed by Chief Executive Officer Gerald Levin. He immediately began pressing the company to initiate an austerity program to reduce what he considered to be an untenable corporate debt approaching $17 billion. This included selling the corporate jets and consolidating redundant departments created by the merger.

While many find the combination of unbridled ambition in the business world juxtaposed with a genuine concern for environmental and social causes in his personal life to be an odd mix, his closest associates view it as an inevitable consequence of Turner's unsettled childhood. As the son of an equally ambitious businessman, Robert Edward Turner II, who had seen his own parents lose their South Carolina home during the Great Depression, he was conscious of the value of a dollar. This was amplified, at the age of 24, by his father's suicide after losing the family billboard advertising business due to debts. Turner also suffered through his younger sister's extended illness and death from lupus erythematosus only four years earlier. The combined experiences turned him away from organized religions but left him with an equally religious fervor to cure some of the ills of the world. "One should not set goals that he cannot reach," he told Time magazine in 1992. "I'm not going to rest until all the world's problems have been solved. Homelessness, AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome]. I'm in great shape. I mean the problems will survive me—no question about it."

Still, Ted Turner will seemingly continue to manage the contradictory feats of creating a corporate empire and also to continue to give much of it away for worthy causes as long as he is able to "wheel and deal" his way through American finance and industry.

—Steve Hanson

Further Reading:

Andrews, Suzanna. "Ted Turner Among the Suits." New York. December 9, 1996, 32.

Bart, Peter. "Ted's Trail of Tears." Variety. August 31, 1998, 4.

Bethell, Tom. "The Hazards of Charity." The American Spectator. July 1998, 18.

Dempsey, John. "Ted, Time: New Tower of Cable." Variety. July22, 1996, 1.

Goldberg, Robert. "Citizen Turner." Playboy. June 1995, 100.

Goldberg, Robert and Gerald Jay Goldberg. Citizen Turner. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Meyer, Michael. "I Want to See What it's Like to Be Big." Newsweek. October 2, 1995, 62.

Miller, Judith. "What Makes Ted Turner Give?" The New York Times. September 20, 1997, 7.

Painton, Priscilla. "Man of the Year." Time. January 6, 1992, 35-39.

Range, Peter Ross. "Ted Turner." Playboy. August 1983, 59.

Sharpe, Anita. "Not so Retiring." The Wall Street Journal. November 27, 1995, A1.

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