Few individuals have had a greater impact on television and how billions of individuals saw the world than Ted Turner. Wildly ambitious and plainspoken, Turner is one of the most influential media moguls of the 20th century.
He took on the television establishment and led the charge that made cable TV the power it would become, founding TBS and the nation’s first “superstation” and launching the first 24-hour cable news network.
“Ted’s business style was unique,” says Terence McGuirk, a longtime chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting System and the current chairman of the Atlanta Braves. “I think in another world he would have fancied himself as a wonderful battlefield general. He was a great strategist.”
In 1938, Robert Edward Turner III was born in Cincinnati. When the U.S. entered World War II, the elder Turner — known as Ed — joined the Navy and relocated his wife and new daughter to the Gulf Coast, leaving the younger Turner — Ted — behind at boarding school.
Turner matriculated at Brown University but was expelled prior to graduation after school officials learned of a woman in his dorm room. Leaving Brown, he joined his father’s business, Turner Advertising, in 1960 and, following his father’s suicide in 1963, succeeded him as president and CEO.
With Ted at the helm, Turner Advertising rebounded from debt, bought several radio stations, and was renamed Turner Communications. In 1970, he purchased a struggling UHF television station — WJRJ Atlanta, changing the call sign to WTCG (for “Watch This Channel Grow”) — as well as a wide range of situation comedies and old movies to fill the hours.
After RCA launched its SATCOM II communications satellite in 1975, the forward-thinking Turner immediately secured a satellite channel to further expand the reach of WTCG. Following the company’s rebranding as Turner Broadcasting System, WTBS became television’s first superstation.
WTCG had been the broadcast home of the Atlanta Braves since 1973, and Turner bought the team in 1976 and added the Atlanta Hawks in 1977, in part to provide additional programming for his superstation. And, with nearly every home in North America receiving the superstation, the Braves acquired a nationwide fanbase.
“When the superstation came along,” says Ernie Johnson, one of the top on-air talents at Turner Sports today, “no matter where you went, you’d hear, ‘Hey, we watch the games all of the time — in Idaho.’”
Turner would again revolutionize the television industry with the idea of a 24-hour news channel. In 1980, he launched the Cable News Network, better known as CNN. Despite overwhelmingly negative press and a lack of respect from established news organizations, CNN persevered and, after only five years, turned a profit.
“Most of my colleagues thought Ted was nuts,” says Tom Johnson, who served as CNN’s president in the 1990s. “He didn’t care about ratings as much as he cared about being the most trusted name in news. I don’t think we’ll see another one like him again.”
Turner made his mark across other sports as well. A well-regarded philanthropist, he sought to improve relations between the Soviet Union and the U.S. after the two Cold War powers had boycotted each other’s Summer Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, respectively. In 1986, Turner hosted the inaugural Goodwill Games.
In 1988, Turner shook up the professional-wrestling universe when he purchased World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and lined it up to compete directly with the sport’s undisputed giant, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Turner’s showdown with the McMahon family sent wrestling’s popularity through the roof and established what would become known at the “Monday Night Wars” during the late 1990s.
Turner has received abundant honors, including, in 1991, becoming the first media figure to be named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. These days, following the massive merger of Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner Communications in 1996, Turner spends most of his time enjoying his large ranches and riding his horses. However, he’s still a man looking to make big impacts across the world.
“I intend to conquer the world,” he once told a television-festival crowd in England, “but, instead of conquering with bombs, I intend to conquer with good ideas.”
He has done so, in a big way.