Ted Turner (born 1938), American television entrepreneur, was a pioneer in the field of cable television, establishing the first satellite superstation and the first all-news network. He already was worth more than $2 billion by 1996, when he merged his Turner Broadcasting Network with Time Warner to create the world's largest media company.
Born November 19, 1938, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III was the oldest child of Ed and Florence Turner. When Turner was nine years old, his father, a native Southerner, moved the family to Savannah, Georgia, where he had bought an outdoor advertising company that was renamed the Turner Advertising Company. This business later launched the younger Turner's successful career as an innovative and risk-taking communications entrepreneur.
Raised by a harsh and domineering father, Turner was sent to military schools in Georgia and Tennessee. He wanted to go to the Naval Academy but he enrolled at Brown University where his father wanted him to study business. The rebellious Turner majored in classics, though he later switched to economics. Although excelling in debating and sailing, he was expelled from the college for entertaining a woman in his dormitory room, which was against college regulations.
In 1960, after a stint with the Coast Guard, Turner began working for his father as a general manager for the advertising company's branch in Macon, Georgia. The senior Turner, unable to face possible financial collapse after developing a successful business, committed suicide on March 5, 1963. At age 24, Turner inherited a struggling company, and with some bold financial maneuvers he aggressively reversed its sagging fortunes, developing the confidence and resources for his growing ambition.
In 1970 Turner took his first step into the television industry. He acquired an independent Atlanta UHF station, Channel 17, that was losing about half a million dollars a year. Relying on a combination of programming, local sports, old movies, and such popular network re-runs as Star Trek, Turner achieved a significant 16 percent share of the television market while the station became profitable.
In 1975 the launching of an RCA satellite opened the way for rapid changes in the burgeoning cable television industry. Following the lead of Home Box Office, Turner quickly capitalized on the new potential. He built a $750, 000 transmission antenna and on December 27, 1976, began beaming a signal which could be received and re-broadcast by cable operators across the nation. He had created the country's first "superstation, " WTBS. The super-station audience grew as more and more homes were wired to receive cable. From 1978 to 1986 the number of families watching WTBS jumped from two million to 36 million, and the station was earning Turner Broadcasting $70 million a year, which provided the foundation for Turner's other investment ventures.
Turner maintained his successful UHF formula for programming on the new superstation. Again, popular network re-runs, movies, and sports provided the major viewing fare. As a way of ensuring a steady diet of sports programming, Turner, in 1976, became owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, whose games were seen nationally. He dubbed the Braves "America's Team" despite a losing record. (The team finally were World Champions in 1995). Turner in 1996 also purchased the Atlanta Hawks professional basketball team.
Not satisfied with a profitable superstation, Turner in June 1980 created at enormous cost the Cable News Network (CNN), the country's first 24-hour all-news station. An experiment that was expected to fail by most media experts, CNN was both entrenched and showing a profit by 1986. In 1982 Turner inaugurated a second news channel, Headline News Network, which provided continuous half-hour summaries of events.
A calculating and visionary entrepreneur who regarded himself as an underdog battling the media giants, Turner desired a foothold among the networks. In 1985 he made an unsuccessful effort to seize control of the CBS corporation. In the wake of that failure, he set his sights on acquiring the Metro-Golden-Mayer/United Artists company in order to obtain direct access to its vast film library, a necessary and increasingly expensive component of his superstation programming.
The $1.6 billion deal was completed in March 1986, with Turner getting control of MGM's film library. Insiders speculated that the purchase price was inflated. Moreover, Turner had to be bailed out by a cable television consortium to avoid bankruptcy after the MGM purchase—thus risking the loss of his personal control of Turner Broadcasting. Having ignored the advice of his financial advisers and industry analysts in the past, Turner expected to survive the gamble. By the time of the merger with Time Warner in 1995, the acquisition looked like a stroke of genius.
In 1995, Turner agreed to sell Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner for $7.5 billion. The merger went into effect in October 1996 following approval by the Federal Trade Commission and the shareholders of the two companies. As vice chairman of Time Warner, Turner reported to that company's CEO, Gerald Levin. Turner assumed responsibility for running the merged company's cable networks, including Time Warner's Home Box Office (HBO) and TBS's Cable New Network (CNN), Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies.
When the deal was announced, many asked how Tuner, who had been his own boss for 35 years could go and work for somebody else. His salary reportedly was $25 million over five years. Perhaps more important, he also became the largest shareholder in Time-Warner, then the world's largest media company, with more than $20 billion in annual revenues from cable television, films, books, magazines, music, and the Internet.
The merger set up a titanic brawl between Turner and another media mogul, Rupert Murdoch. The fireworks began in the fall of 1996 when Turner convinced Levin not to carry Murdoch's fledgling Fox News Service. In approving its merger with TBS, the FTC had ordered Time Warner to offer its millions of subscribers another 24 hour news service in addition to CNN. Instead of Fox News, Time Warner aired MSNBC, a joint venture between Microsoft and General Electric's NBC, whose softer format posed less of a competitive threat to CNN.
The refusal to carry Fox News meant that it would not be seen in New York City, where Time Warner enjoyed a near-monopoly with 1.1 million cable subscribers. Murdoch's news station thus would be invisible to the Madison Avenue advertising agencies and media chieftains whose decisions are worth millions to a cable network. To get around Time-Warner's lock on cable systems, Murdoch announced plans to invest $1 billion in a satellite TV service called Sky, which would offer both cable TV and local broadcast programming.
Time-Warner's decision was followed by a war of words and dirty tricks not seen since the days of William Randolph Hearst. When Murdoch retaliated by canceling plans to carry a Time Warner-owned entertainment channel, Turner immediately likened Murdoch to Nazi leader Adolph Hitler. Later he called Murdoch a "scumbag." Murdoch's New York Post yanked Turner's CNN from its television listings. The Post also dredged up the radical-chic past of "Hanoi Jane" Fonda, Turner's third wife. And it speculated publicly about whether Turner, reportedly a manic-depressive, was neglecting to take his lithium. Perhaps not entirely factitiously, Turner in September 1997 suggested that he and Murdoch settle their highly publicized feud with a boxing match. "It would be like Rocky, only for old guys, " said Turner.
In his earlier years, Turner personally participated in international sports competition. Having received the Yachtsman of the Year award an unprecedented three times, he was the winning skipper of the America's Cup race in 1977. Within a few years of purchasing the Atlanta Braves, Turner and TBN were involved in practically every major professional sport. In July 1986 Turner's superstation carried the Goodwill Games, held in Moscow, which featured athletic competition between U.S. and Soviet athletes. In a joint effort with the Soviet Union, Turner he organized and promoted the Olympics-like event. A second competition was held in Seattle, Washington, in 1990. Although the two events lost $66 million, Turner hoped they would foster better relations between the two countries. For his contributions to international broadcasting, Time magazine named him "Man of the Year" in 1991.
By the late 1990s, Ted Turner was worth more than $2 billion; the largest private landowner in the U.S., he divided his days between luxurious homes in six states. A flamboyant and shrewd businessman, he was also a celebrity who worked and lived in the fast lane. In December 1991, Turner married Jane Fonda, movie star and liberal activist. Two previous marriages had produced five children, who sit with Turner and Fonda on the board of the charitable Turner Foundation.
In the highly publicized relationship with Fonda, Turner apparently abandoned the philandering that had plagued his earlier marriages and sought to remake himself as a devoted, loving husband. Fonda, for her part, retired from the screen and folded Fonda Films, her independent production company. While both remained workaholics, they seemed to take genuine pleasure in their times together.
In September 1997, Turner literally stunned the world when he pledged $1 billion to the good-works program of the United Nations. Established programs such as feeding children, helping refugees and the poor, and removing land mines would benefit from his donation. (He has promised to give $100 million a year for a decade to U.N. programs.) After making the largest single pledge in philanthropic history, Turner challenged other wealthy citizens by declaring, "I'm putting every rich person in the world on notice."
Ted Turner is the subject of a biography, Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way: The Story of Ted Turner, by Christian Williams (1981). He was the subject of several long magazine profiles, including Newsweek (June 16, 1980), Time (August 9, 1982), and Fortune (July 7, 1986). Turner collaborated with Gary Jobson on a book about sailing, The Racing Edge (1979). He also signed a contract with Simon and Schuster for an autobiography.
See also Bibb, Porter, It Ain't As Easy As It Looks: The Story of Ted Turner & CNN (1993). Goldberg, Robert and Gerald J. Goldberg, Citizen Turner (1995). Painton, Priscilla, "The Taming of Ted Turner, " Time (January 6, 1992). Andrews, Suzanna, "Ted Turner among the Suits, " New York (December 9, 1996). Conant, Jennet, "Married … With Buffalo, " Vanity Fair (April 1997) [discusses marriage and relationship between Turner and Jane Fonda]. Masters, Kim and Bryan Burrough, "Cable Guys, " Vanity Fair (January 1997). See also Newsweek, September 29, 1997. □
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