Founder of Turner Broadcasting System Inc.
"You'll hardly ever find a superachiever anywhere who isn't motivated at least partially by a sense of insecurity."-Ted Turner
Intense, arrogant, full of braggadocio, combative for the sheer hell of it-Ted Turner has been called a genius, a flake, a fruitcake, a maniac and a visionary. Derided as "the Mouth of the South" because of his over-the-top public behavior, he has often been seriously underestimated. But behind the outrageous facade is a shrewd innovator who transformed the television industry.
Born in 1938 in Cincinnati, Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III was the oldest child of Ed and Florence Turner. When Turner was 9, his father, a native Southerner, moved the family to Savannah, Georgia, where he formed the outdoor advertising venture Turner Advertising Co. A "problem child," Turner spent much of his youth in military schools in Georgia and Tennessee. He wanted to go to the Naval Academy, but instead enrolled at Brown University at his father's insistence. He was eventually expelled from Brown when he was caught with a woman in his room-a flagrant violation of school policy.
In 1960, after a stint in the Coast Guard, Turner joined the family business. It turned out he had a flair for sales and his father watched proudly as he quickly outdistanced the company's best salesperson. His father rewarded Turner with a manager's position in their Macon, Georgia, operation. But in 1963, Turner was shocked to learn that his father, deeply in debt and fearful the business was overextended, had initiated plans to sell the company. Turner accused him of quitting. But in truth, the self-made millionaire was suffering a nervous breakdown, and on March 5, 1963, he committed suicide.
So at the age of 24, Turner inherited his father's company and immediately set out to stop the deal his father had set into motion before ending his life. The buyer agreed to void the sale, and under Turner's management, the company thrived. But it wasn't long before Turner became bored with billboards. Deciding to diversify, in 1970, he bought the near-bankrupt Atlanta TV station Channel 17. He renamed the station WTCG (for Turner Communications Group) and plastered unleased billboards with prominent advertisements for the new Channel 17.
By showing primarily reruns of sitcoms such as "Gilligan's Island" and "Leave It to Beaver" and old black-and-white movies, Turner had the station turning a profit within three years. But he knew that eventually he would have to run original programming if he wanted sizable growth. Sports seemed to be just the ticket. His first success came with wrestling. Turner built a full-sized wrestling ring in his tiny headquarters building and broadcast live professional wrestling matches. Ratings soared, but his biggest coup was winning the rights to broadcast Atlanta Braves games. The station became so dependent on the Braves that Turner purchased the team in 1976, ensuring a regular and marketable source of programming.
That same year, he took the gamble that would transform his backwater UHF station into a national broadcast phenomenon. In 1975, RCA had launched a communications satellite capable of sending television signals nationally. Realizing that he could significantly increase the number of viewers by broadcasting via satellite, Turner built a $750,000 transmission tower and began beaming a signal which could be received and rebroadcast by cable operators across the nation. The move created the country's first "superstation," WTBS. By 1978, Turner's station was reaching 2 million homes, more than double the number it had previously been capable of reaching.
His superstation a success, Turner looked for other ways to exploit satellite technology, and proposed launching a 24-hour live-news network. Turner was not the first to think of an all-news channel. Other media heavyweights had long thought about doing it, but were leery after very costly failed attempts. Turner's gut told him it was a good move. Risking everything he owned, he started the Cable News Network (CNN) in 1980, and once again, the gamble paid off. According to many experts, by providing live coverage of breaking events, CNN transformed the way news was reported. "The definition of news was rewritten-from something that has happened to something that is happening at the very moment you are hearing it," Time magazine editors explain.
Regarding himself as an underdog battling the media giants, Turner desired a foothold among the networks. After a failed attempt to take over CBS in 1985, Turner purchased MGM for $1.6 billion in order to gain control of the MGM/UA film library. At the time, many investors felt Turner had overpaid for the library. In later years, however, the transaction would be regarded as a steal. By purchasing some 3,300 MGM/UA movies, including such classics as "Gone With the Wind," "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane," Turner had essentially acquired a library of films whose value would not depreciate in the future. To capitalize on this vast library, Turner started two more networks¬-Turner Network Television (TNT) in 1988 and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in 1994.
But the biggest deal of Turner's mercurial career would come in 1996, when he agreed to sell Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner for $7.5 billion. Turner became Time Warner's largest shareholder and was given the job of overseeing Time Warner's cable networks division as its vice chairman. One of the major reasons Turner agreed to the merger, which at the time created the largest media conglomerate in the world, was that he gained the use of Time Warner's library of films and cartoons, thereby significantly increasing his own cable channels' range of programming. In addition, Time Warner was the second-largest cable systems operator in the nation, and the merger gave Turner easier access to limited cable channel space.
By the end of the 1990s, Turner was worth nearly $7 billion, but a new Ted Turner was emerging. Although still outspoken, Turner set his sites on philanthropy, and in 1997, pledged to donate $1 billion to the United Nations in hopes of inspiring others to be as generous. Explaining his actions, Turner told Time magazine, "I'm not going to rest until all the world's problems are solved." Pundits may poke fun at this lofty goal, but considering what Turner has already accomplished in his stellar career, he just might be able to pull it off. Stay tuned.
Ted Turner's career may seem like an unending string of beating the odds, but he has had his setbacks and made his fair share of mistakes. One of his major gaffes was when he began colorizing classic movies to give them greater mass appeal. While it was an ingenious and profitable business move (the first 12 films he colorized grossed an average of $900,000 for one-year syndication rights), it antagonized a very vocal segment of the film industry. Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg and other Hollywood heavyweights went as far as to testify before Congress in an attempt to prevent further colorization of the MGM library. As for Turner, he replied in classic Turneresque style: "I wanted to do it, and they're mine."
Bucking The Odds
Few industry experts thought CNN would succeed. But as has often been the case with Ted Turner, they couldn't have been more wrong. When it signed on in 1980, CNN had 1.7 million subscribers. By 1999, it was being carried in 80 million households, and had a total of 32 bureaus and more than 600 national and international affiliates.