Magazine article Variety

Betting Man

Magazine article Variety

Betting Man

Article excerpt

RISK DROVE TED TURNER'S PLAN TO TURN UHF STATION INTO A MEDIA EMPIRE

In his prime as a media mogul, Ted Turner was the embodiment of disruption.

From humble beginnings with a UHF-TV station in Atlanta, Turner built an empire that blazed trails in communications. His unbridled ambition fueled the rise of cable television as an alternative to the broadcast TV status quo. He saw cable's need for programming and turned his small local station into a national "Superstation." He birthed the world's first 24-hour news network, CNN, in 1980, out of sheer determination. He understood the long-tail theory of content long before it had a name with his bet-the-company gamble on buying movie and TV libraries, from MGM to Hanna-Barbera.

Turner, 80, has stayed away from the media business for most of the past two decades, shifting his focus to environmental protection and advocacy, management of the 2 million acres of land he owns across nine states, and his investments in renewable energy and the Ted's Montana Grill restaurant chain. In 2015, Atlanta-based Turner Enterprises launched the Ted Turner Reserves hospitality venture, offering luxury ecotourism packages at four properties in New Mexico.

As Turner Classic Movies - the last cable channel that Turner Broadcasting System launched as an independent outfit - turns 25 this week, Turner took time to reflect on his accomplishments and the legacy of the scrappy content company he sold to Time Warner in 1996. He stubbornly steered clear of any ques- tions about the current state of the Turner cable channels, nor would he offer his views on AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner last year. The Turner division that survived even the disastrous AOL years at Time Warner was essentially dismantled last month when AT&T initiated a sweeping overhaul of Time Warner's management structure.

If those changes upset Turner, he's not saying. That's a big difference from the old days, when he earned the nickname the Mouth of the South for his penchant for offering his unvarnished views on any topic. But friends and business associates say there is little doubt he's been affected by the changes under AT&T, if only as a marker of the passage of time.

"Ted always used to tell us, 'It's my name that's attached to this,' " says Brad Siegel, the cable veteran who worked for Turner Broadcasting from 1993 to 2003. "Whatever we did, he wanted to make sure it was something he would be proud of because it was his name at the top."

Turner disclosed last September that he is suffering from Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disorder. Those who know him say the disease is taking a physical toll on the born entrepreneur, who has long been known for having the courage of his convictions. To this day, he has no regrets about producing "colorized" versions of vintage black-and-white movies such as "Casablanca" and "High Noon," despite howls of protest from film lovers.

Turner agreed to engage in a rare interview with Variety, communicating via email. Here is an edited transcript of the correspondence.

When you were starting to build TBS in the 1970s, what was it that led you to recognize the promise of cable television?

When I owned two television stations, WTCG in Atlanta and WRET in Charlotte, I realized that in order to expand our reach to the entire Southeast, satellite (distribution of the station signals) was the answer. After moving into satellite, WTCG was renamed Superstation TBS (WTBS). At around the same time I also took notice that cable television was starting to grow, and I envisioned our programming would be a huge success across the nation. Who knew CNN would later become the most trusted and most watched cable channel in the world.

With the perspective of hindsight, what do you think were some of your most important decisions as the leader of TBS?

Aside from CNN, I think the decision to broadcast the Atlanta Braves games on Superstation TBS was a big deal for us; it really grew our audience. …

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