All achievers

Robert Edward (Ted) Turner

Founder, Cable News Network

It was probably crazy. Take a local station, put it on the satellite. And there were regulations against it.

Ted Turner, a teenage cadet at the McCallie School.
Ted Turner as a teenage cadet at the McCallie School.

Robert Edward Turner III was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. From an early age, he was called Ted, while his father, Robert Edward Turner, Jr., was known as Ed. While Ed Turner served in the Navy during World War II, the family followed him to his Gulf Coast post, but young Ted was left behind in a boarding school in Cincinnati. When Ted was nine, Ed Turner moved the family to Savannah, Georgia, where he purchased a small billboard company he renamed Turner Advertising. Ted attended Georgia Military Academy, near Atlanta. Discipline in the Turner household was always strict. At his father’s insistence, Ted worked from an early age, learning every aspect of the outdoor advertising business, from maintenance to finance. But Ted Turner’s childhood was not all work. The family business prospered, and Ed rewarded his son with the gift of a sailing dinghy. At age nine, he began sailing and soon developed a passion for sailboat racing. By age 11, he was competing in the junior regatta of the Savannah Yacht Club.

At 12, Ted Turner was sent to the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although he balked at the school’s discipline in his first years there, he later emerged as a leader among his classmates, winning the Tennessee debating championship. He continued to work in the billboard business during the summers, and by the end of his teens had become an extremely effective salesman. At Brown University, he studied classics, and enjoyed reading military history. He was suspended from Brown on two occasions for breaking dormitory rules, but eventually received his degree.

Ted Turner and his father, Robert Edward Turner, Jr., at Ted's wedding in 1960.
1960: Ted Turner and father, Robert Edward Turner, Jr., at Ted’s wedding. His father committed suicide in 1963.

He returned to Georgia and his father’s business, and was soon married. The marriage did not last long, and Ted’s life was further darkened by the death of his sister, after a long and painful illness. Ted threw himself into his work, and his father promoted him to assistant manager of Turner Advertising’s Atlanta branch. Meanwhile, the firm took on large amounts of debt to buy out a competitor. Ed Turner’s health was failing, and the pressures of the merger proved too much for him. In 1963, he took his own life, leaving Ted Turner, at 24, in charge of a growing, but heavily indebted enterprise. He worked day and night, offering customers a discount for early payment, to increase the amount of cash on hand. Soon, he had stabilized the business and was building a large fortune. Ted Turner married again, but continued to devote most of his time to business, staying in the office for days on end. By the end of the decade, Turner Advertising was the largest billboard company in the Southeast, but Ted Turner recognized that his customers were allocating ever-larger shares of their advertising budgets to radio and television, and he sought opportunities in broadcasting.

At the time, the television business was dominated by three major networks, each with its own local affiliate in the major regional markets. Only the largest cities could support a fourth or fifth station. Cable television was still in its infancy, with a scattered handful of operators providing service to remote areas, beyond the reach of network affiliate stations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had opened a new range of ultra-high frequencies (UHF) for television broadcasting, but few television viewers knew how to receive UHF transmission. After investing in a number of radio stations, Turner purchased a failing UHF station in Atlanta. He changed the name of his firm to Turner Communications Group, and renamed the station WTCG. He quickly added a second UHF station in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both stations were hemorrhaging money, but Turner moved boldly ahead. He began buying old movies, and TV shows, securing the broadcast rights outright, so he could show them over and over without paying royalties. Soon, his stations were breaking even.

Ted Turner sports an Indian headdress at the Atlanta Braves' 1976 home opener, Turner's first season as team owner. (AP Images)
Turner sports an Indian headdress at the Atlanta Braves’ 1976 home opener, Turner’s first season as team owner.

In 1972, a change in FCC regulations offered Turner an opportunity he leapt at. For the first time, it permitted cable television services to transmit programming from remote stations. Turner used microwave transmitters to relay his WTCG signal to cable operators in rural areas and found a ready audience for his programming. At the end of 1975, RCA launched the SATCOM II communications satellite, and Turner was one of the first to rent a channel. From a huge broadcasting dish in an isolated hollow, he broadcast his WTCG signal to the satellite, which then beamed the signal to cable stations all over the United States. At the time, it seemed an unlikely proposition: a local UHF station beaming black-and-white reruns to households thousands of miles away, but television audiences were hungry for more choices. The following year, Turner bought the Atlanta Braves baseball team, and began broadcasting its games live. At the end of the year, Turner bought a controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks basketball team as well, and added its games to his broadcast line-up. The combination of live sports, reruns of rural-themed sitcoms, old movies and professional wrestling won the station a national audience. Turner renamed his satellite channel WTBS — for Turner Broadcasting System — and dubbed it the world’s first superstation.

As owner of the Braves, Turner was attracting a great deal of publicity, much of it negative, for his contentious dealings with rival team owners and baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn. After a particularly heated argument, Kuhn suspended Turner for the 1977 baseball season, barring him from the team’s offices and dugout. An avid sailor who had already won numerous races, Turner entered his yacht, Courageous, in the 1977 America’s Cup competition. Although Courageous was an older, less technically advanced craft than others in the race, Turner handily defeated his American competitors, earning the right to defend the Cup against the world’s challenger. The final was held in rough seas, but once again, Turner prevailed.

Ted Turner at the helm of Courageous, the yacht he sailed to victory in the 1977 America's Cup race. (Photo by George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Ted Turner at the helm of Courageous, the yacht he sailed to victory in the 1977 America’s Cup race. (Photo by George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

In the midst of this triumph, Turner’s public behavior was subjected to relentless press criticism. Sportswriters, seizing on his outspoken personality, lampooned him as “the mouth from the South.” But Turner was soon to prove that he was not only a fiercely competitive sportsman, but an unusually courageous one. His seamanship underwent its ultimate test in 1979, when he entered a newer boat, Tenacious, in the Fastnet race. This course runs from Plymouth, England, around Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland, and back again. Turner’s was one of 302 boats to enter the race that year. In mid-race, a horrendous storm broke. Numerous boats capsized and sank, and 22 lives were lost at sea. At one point it appeared that Tenacious too would be swallowed by the sea, but Turner refused to abandon ship, and came in first of the 92 boats that finally completed the course. The 1979 Fastnet has gone down as one of the deadliest ocean races in history, and Turner’s victory has become a legend. The national governing body for the sport of sailboat racing, US Sailing, named him Yachtsman of the Year four times (1970, ’73, ’77 and ’79), a unique honor.

In 1980, Turner sold his Charlotte television station and used the proceeds to launch his most ambitious venture yet, a 24-hour all-news channel. Broadcast professionals and the news media dismissed the notion as hopelessly impractical. The networks already ran news and talk shows every morning, in addition to their flagship dinnertime news broadcasts. Network affiliates ran local news for a half-hour at the end of the evening. That, most insiders reasoned, was all the television news the world needed. Turner pressed ahead with his Cable News Network (CNN) and added a second channel, CNN Headline News, in 1982. Turner’s cable news ventures struggled, but he persevered, undeterred by criticism. By 1985, CNN was showing a profit and Turner expanded the service with CNN Radio and CNN International.

Ted Turner, in his Atlanta office, 1991. The placques on his desk bear his favorite maxim, "Either Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way." (Photo by Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
1991: Turner in his Atlanta office. The plaque has his favorite maxim, “Either Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way.”

By this time, Turner was a billionaire, and was increasingly interested in deploying his wealth on behalf of worthy causes. In 1985, he founded the Better World Society, to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Some of the flamboyant impulsiveness of his youth had abated, but his second marriage was over. As always, Ted Turner concentrated on nurturing new enterprises. Ever alert to new developments in broadcasting technology, he equipped CNN crews with “flyaway” dishes, portable satellite transmission equipment, so they could report on breaking news, live from anywhere in the world, rather than shipping news film or videotape from remote locations to a permanent television station.

Ted Turner at a 1985 press conference, announcing the creation of the Goodwill Games. (© Robert Maass/CORBIS)
Ted Turner at a 1985 press conference, announcing the creation of the Goodwill Games. (CORBIS)

In 1986, Turner purchased MGM Entertainment Company. To the business world’s astonishment, he quickly sold it back to the previous owner, retaining nothing but the studio’s film library. To many observers, it seemed like an utterly capricious and wrong-headed move, one that immediately cost Turner $100 million, but within the year, his film library had earned $125 million. Newly available home video technology had created an enormous market for films on videotape. The catalogue Turner had acquired from MGM included not only classic MGM films, but the libraries of United Artists, Warner Bothers and RKO, everything from classics like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca to forgotten B-pictures and short subjects from the ’20s through the ’60s. Turner employed a new process to add color to a number of old black-and-white films, a practice that outraged purists but boosted videotape sales of many of the films in the collection.

The 1980s were a period of heightened international tension, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Ted Turner approached the Soviet government himself, offering to sponsor a series of international Goodwill Games, to foster athletic excellence and good sportsmanship in an atmosphere free of the politics that had marred the Olympics. Turner promoted Goodwill Games in Moscow in 1986, Seattle in 1990, and in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1994. It is estimated that he lost $110 million dollars on these games, but they played an appreciable role in reducing tensions between the superpowers in the waning days of the Cold War.

1991 TIME Man of the Year, media mogul Ted Turner. (Photo by Gregory Heisler/Time Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
1991: TIME Man of the Year, media mogul Ted Turner. (Gregory Heisler/Time Magazine/Time & Life Pictures/Getty)

CNN, long derided by traditional news sources, proved itself a powerful force in 1989 when a million young Chinese demonstrated for democracy in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Turner’s crews, with their portable gear, broadcast the events live. When the Chinese army suppressed the movement violently, CNN’s cameras revealed the confrontation to a horrified world instantaneously. CNN even broadcast the closing of its own broadcast site by Chinese authorities. In the summer of 1990, Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, invaded and occupied the neighboring, oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait. The world held its breath that winter, as diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis failed, and an international coalition prepared for war. While other networks broadcast from safety, behind allied lines, CNN crews continued to report from Baghdad, even after hostilities had begun, beaming live images of the attack on Baghdad, while the bombs fell around them. Hailed as the “scoop of the century,” it was a transformative moment in the history of broadcasting, and made CNN the talk of the world. Later in 1991, Turner married well-known film actress and political activist Jane Fonda. The same year, Turner’s Atlanta Braves won their division title, the beginning of an unmatched 14-year winning streak (excepting only the 1994 season, when a players’ strike interrupted division play). At year’s end Time magazine named Ted Turner its “Man of the Year.”

Ted Turner and Jane Fonda cheer on the Atlanta Braves during the 1996 National League Championship series. (AP Images/Dave Martin)
Ted Turner and Jane Fonda cheer on the Atlanta Braves during the 1996 National League Championship series.

In 1992, after purchasing the animation studio Hanna-Barbera, with its catalogue of popular children’s programming, Turner launched the Cartoon Network, another cable offering that has become a fixture in homes around the world. The following year, he added the motion picture companies Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema to Turner Broadcasting’s portfolio, further expanding his library of films and adding motion picture production capability. Any hard feelings Turner may have spurred among film buffs with his colorization project were more than mollified in 1994, when Turner founded a new cable channel, Turner Classic Movies (TCM), to show old and new films, uncut, uninterrupted and commercial-free, 24 hours a day. All films are shown in their original format: black-and-white films in black-and-white, widescreen films in their original aspect ratio. TCM has also acquired a formidable reputation for original documentaries and for its film restoration and preservation efforts.

Ted Turner on his ranch near Bozeman, Montana, 1991. (Photo by Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Ted Turner on his ranch near Bozeman, Montana, 1991. (Photo by Ted Thai/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

By mid-decade, Ted Turner had become the largest private landowner in the United States, with ranch properties exceeding a million acres, greater than the area of the states of Delaware and Rhode Island. In Montana, he began a long-term project of returning thousands of acres to their natural state, re-introducing the endangered North American bison to the plains it had once ruled. In 1995, Turner’s Atlanta Braves won the World Series. The following year brought a momentous change to the media landscape, when Turner Broadcasting merged with multimedia conglomerate Time Warner. Ted Turner became Time Warner’s largest individual shareholder, and served the parent company as Vice Chairman, with responsibility for cable television. The company’s share price soared, and within nine months of the merger, Ted Turner’s personal fortune had increased by another billion dollars.

Ted Turner on his Montana buffalo ranch. He is the country's largest landowner, apart from the federal government. (© Louie Psihoyos/CORBIS)
Turner on his Montana buffalo ranch. He is the country’s largest landowner, apart from the federal government.

Over the previous decade, Turner had played an active role in the United Nations Association. For several years in a row, the United States Congress refused to appropriate funds for paying the country’s dues to the United Nations. When the arrears approached a billion dollars, Turner stunned the world by paying the shortfall out of his own pocket. In 2001, Turner and a fellow Georgian, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, organized the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonpartisan international organization, dedicated to reducing the risk posed by nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction. The year was a difficult one for Ted Turner. His ten-year marriage to Jane Fonda ended, and in a startling development, Time Warner was acquired by Internet provider America Online. Turner’s share in the merged company, renamed AOL Time Warner, was sharply reduced. The merger proved an awkward one, and the company’s name soon reverted to Time Warner. Turner led a reorganization effort in the company but was passed over for the chairmanship. In 2003, he resigned his post as Vice Chairman. In four decades, Ted Turner had transformed the world of telecommunications and brought the nations of the world closer together, through his broadcasting business ventures and his philanthropies. Through the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Turner Foundation, he now concentrates his considerable energies on defending life on Earth from the multiple threats posed by environmental degradation and weapons of mass destruction.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 1984

When Ted Turner entered the broadcasting business in 1970, there was no cable television as we know it. Viewers in most markets made do with three channels at most, with one national news broadcast a day. Turner took a failing UHF station in Atlanta, Georgia and sent it by satellite to fledgling cable television operators around the country, creating the first superstation. Then he did what the old networks and news media considered impossible: he created the first all-news television station, CNN, and pioneered the live broadcasting of breaking news from around the globe, allowing the whole world to experience history in the making.

A fierce and courageous competitor, Turner personally dominated the sport of sailboat racing in the 1970s, winning the America’s Cup in 1977 and overcoming a deadly storm to triumph in the Fastnet Race of 1979. He continued to make his mark on the sports world as owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, winners of the 1995 World Series, five National League pennants and 14 consecutive division championships, an all-time record.

One of the most colorful and unpredictable characters in the history of American business, he is also a philanthropist of unprecedented generosity. In the 1990s, he single-handedly paid a billion-dollar debt his country owed the United Nations in back dues. Having achieved historic successes in the world of business, he has now turned his attention and resources to the causes of world peace and nuclear disarmament.

Watch full interview

Let’s talk about your early days in broadcasting. In 1975, RCA’s Satcom II was launched, and you immediately hopped on it. What were you thinking, to get into satellite broadcasting so fast?

Ted Turner:  I read the broadcasting magazines, and they wrote several stories about Home Box Office, and they planned to go on the satellite with their pay movie service and try and get cable systems to sign up, and it required a large receiver.  Everybody thought at the time — it cost close to $100,000 — and that was going to really restrict a number of cable systems that were going to be able to afford a satellite dish. But very quickly, we learned that you could get by with smaller dishes than that.

The technology changed and started evolving very rapidly. It really had, ever since television got started, or since the industrial revolution. Technology has moved generally faster and faster in certain areas where technology is important.

Keys to success — Preparation

There are certain things, like growing radishes, that technology hasn’t really changed very much, but television, I feel like it was a pretty high tech business.  Certainly it was in the early days of television, and I just kept up with what was going on technologically and took advantage of the new equipment and new ways of doing things from the very beginning. In business, or in life — or in military engagements, which I’d studied a lot — it’s the old saying, “Get there firstest with the mostest,” and so forth. And that’s what I tried to do in business, and I did, because the record speaks for itself. I started with virtually nothing.  In 1970, which was my first year in the television business, we had 35 employees at the station in Atlanta, and we did $600,000 in business. Thirty-five employees.  When I merged with Time Warner in 1995, which was 25 years later, we had 12,000 employees, and we did two-and-a-half billion dollars.  Instead of losing a million dollars, which we did the first year, we made close to $250 million profit, and that was in 25 years.

You did something right! Tell us about your vision for the first superstation. A lot of people thought that was just crazy.

Ted Turner: I can certainly understand how they could think that.

Keys to success — Vision

It was probably crazy. Take a local station, put it on the satellite. And there were regulations against it, but they changed the regulations, and I started lobbying.  A lot of the battles that we fought in the television business were fought, to a large degree, in Washington, against the networks, the broadcasters, against the motion picture studios, and against the sports leagues that didn’t want us to take our little station and take the programming and run it all over the country and basically create a national network that was based on local programming. But we were able to convince Congress that it would be good for business, because it would create competition to the three networks where there was none before.

Ted Turner surveys an empty Atlanta Stadium in 1976, shortly after buying the Braves baseball team. Today, the Braves play in a newer stadium, known as Turner Field. (AP Images/Charles E. Kelly)
Ted Turner surveys an empty Atlanta Stadium in 1976, shortly after buying the Braves baseball team. (AP)

You must have really had to believe in yourself. There were scoffers saying, “This is crazy. Nobody will ever want to watch this.”

Ted Turner: Nobody will ever want to watch it? Why wouldn’t they want to watch it? If they wanted to watch it in Atlanta, why wouldn’t they want to watch it in Seattle?

We had been running movies and situation comedies like Andy Griffith and Green Acres, off network. We had off-network stuff, and very quickly, I got the Braves baseball. So we had baseball games on, where very few markets — only the biggest markets that had local baseball teams — had local coverage. Most of America only got a Saturday afternoon game on NBC, and all of a sudden, here was a complete slate of 150 baseball games, most of them in primetime. So people in Nebraska and North Dakota and South Dakota, Hawaii and Alaska could have a team to cheer for that they never had before. No, it was good programming. We carried wrestling, and people liked that. Wrestling, baseball, basketball and movies and some other sporting events that we could get our hands on. We had a very, very viable, popular network there.

And it eventually started making money. It took a long time. I was so poor for a long time. Nielsen wouldn’t give us the ratings for several years. I had to threaten to sue them to rate us. So we didn’t even have ratings, and we didn’t show up in the rating books because we didn’t meet the minimum requirements. The only way I could tell what our audience was is the things that we sold on the air.

Keys to success — Perseverance

We didn’t have hardly any commercials — regular commercials like Procter & Gamble or Budweiser or Coca-Cola. They didn’t buy us because we weren’t — for the most part, they wouldn’t buy us because we didn’t have ratings and we were too small. But we were able to sell records and tapes and Crazy Glue and things like that. People would mail — usually they would mail a check for $19.95 in, plus shipping and handling. What I would do is to see where they came from, and I would separate the letters. The letters from Atlanta would go here, and the letters from outside of Atlanta would go over here, and if I got 100 letters in Atlanta and I got 200 outside of Atlanta, I figured the audience was twice as big outside of Atlanta as it was inside of Atlanta. While I was going through these letters — I swear to God, this is the truth — it turns out that about one out of ten letters — the Post Office department was real sloppy, and they wouldn’t stamp them. You know? It was a used postage stamp. So I would tear those postage stamps off, and we’d use them again on our outgoing mail to save money. The Chairman of the Board was up there pulling the stamps off the letters. That’s a funny story, isn’t it?

And for 20 years, I lived in my office.

Lived in it?

Ted Turner:  I lived in my office.  I lived on a couch in my office for ten years, and then luckily, I got wealthy enough to build a little penthouse on the roof — 700 square feet — and I moved up there.  It was a lot nicer.  I just walked up the stairs one floor.  My office was on the top floor, and I just walked up to go to bed, and that way, I had another hour to work every day, because when I walked downstairs, I was instantly in my office without having to fight traffic.  So I was able to work an hour. I went to the games at night, and I’d get home at 11:00.  I’d come back in the office, and I was right there: 7:00 when I woke up, to be at work at 8:00.  I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I liked it.  I mean almost.  Sometimes I’d go home to see my wife and family. I still live in my office.  I live up above in a penthouse over my office building in Atlanta.  The restaurant is down on the ground floor.  So if I’m hungry, I just go down to the restaurant and eat and get a meal and then go back up, and I’m right there.

That says something about your work ethic.

Ted Turner: I did find time to race in hundreds of sailboat races all over the world, but I stayed busy. I have to say that.