In the last three decades of the twentieth century, Ted Turner transformed himself into a modern-day icon whose work has made a significant impact nationally as well as in the city of Atlanta. Known variously as a media titan, cable-TV pioneer, father of the Goodwill Games, owner of a World Series champion, skipper of a yacht that won the America’s Cup, feature film producer, and restaurateur, Turner began by parlaying an overextended billboard company and a low-power television station into a communications giant.
Robert Edward “Ted” Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 19, 1938. The family moved to Savannah when Turner was nine years old. He later attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was captain of the sailing team. In 1960 Turner went to work for his father’s billboard company. Starting his career in Savannah and continuing it in Macon, he assumed control of the fledgling concern when his father committed suicide in 1963. Turner Advertising grew into the fifth largest billboard company in America, and Turner, who moved to Atlanta in 1964, began looking elsewhere for his next challenge.
Although Turner rarely watched television, in 1970 he bought WJRJ, a small UHF station in Atlanta that specialized in broadcasting old movies, network television show reruns, and professional wrestling. Beginning in 1973, Atlanta Braves baseball games were added to the station’s lineup. Within three years, Turner’s “Superstation” was beamed via satellite to homes across the country, making residents from Alaska to Florida fans of the Braves, who became known as “America’s Team.” In 1979 the station’s call letters were changed to WTBS to reflect the company’s new name, Turner Broadcasting System.
In 1976 Turner bought the Braves team (and spent one day as their manager before Major League Baseball officials ordered him from the dugout) and later bought the Hawks, Atlanta’s National Basketball Association franchise. Turner’s purchase of the two teams has long been credited as the action that kept both clubs in Atlanta, where they remain today.
A lifelong sailing enthusiast, Turner’s attention returned to the high seas in the late 1970s. After numerous false starts and frustrating losses, Turner’s boat Courageous won the 1977 America’s Cup.
CNN and Turner Broadcasting
Soon thereafter, Turner’s interest in competitive sailing waned as he labored to see his latest vision—a twenty-four-hour all-news television network—become reality. After some three years of planning, Cable News Network (CNN) began broadcasting on June 1, 1980, and was available in 1.7 million homes. CNN led the way for a variety of Turner-themed television stations, including Headline News (first known as CNN 2), Turner Network Television, Turner South, SportsSouth, Cartoon Network, and Turner Classic Movies.
Although CNN was not an immediate financial success, it soon became well respected internationally, especially by world leaders, and five years after its inception the operation was profitable. In spring 1985 Turner announced a bid to purchase CBS, one of the “big three” television networks. Although the network was able to buy back enough of its own shares—at a cost of about $1 billion—to thwart a Turner takeover, there is little question that the foray helped boost the Turner name worldwide.
It was at this point, however, that Turner made a rare misstep when he bought the famed MGM Studios, which had produced such movies as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz but had fallen on hard times. Turner paid a reported $1.5 billion for the studio and its extensive film library, but it is widely believed that the package was overvalued. After completing the deal Turner was more than $2 billion in debt, and his Turner Broadcasting empire was in danger.
While Turner battled with bankers and his own board of directors for control of Turner Broadcasting, his next appearance on the world’s stage came in the summer of 1986, when he broadcast the first Goodwill Games, a Turner-conceived, made-for-television event that closely mimicked the Olympic Games. The initial Goodwill Games were held in Moscow, Russia, but many elite athletes chose to stay away, citing concerns over the recent Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Viewers stayed away as well, and Turner lost an estimated $20 million, although he was able to meet with Russian premier Mikhail Gorbachev and later claimed that the games helped to end the cold war between the United States and Russia.
Despite the setbacks of the 1986 Goodwill Games, the 1990 games were scheduled for Seattle, Washington. Although Turner lost some $40 million on the Seattle event, the games were held again in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994; New York City in 1998; and Lake Placid, New York, in 2000. The final games were held in Brisbane, Australia, in 2001.
Later Career and Philanthropy
There were few negatives for Turner in 1991. CNN’s comprehensive coverage of the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) made it the network of choice for viewers seeking the latest news on the conflict in Iraq. After a courtship of several years, the twice-divorced Turner—who was also named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”—married actress, activist, and fitness tycoon Jane Fonda. (They were divorced in 2001.) And after nearly a dozen years of futility under his ownership, Turner’s Atlanta Braves reached the World Series for the first time since 1958. The Braves returned to the World Series several times in the 1990s, winning in 1995.
After another failed attempt at buying CBS, Turner announced in 1996 that Turner Broadcasting would merge with the media giant Time Warner. This decision effectively signaled the end of his career as a principal in a major company, and Turner gave up the controlling interest in all his properties, including networks and sports teams.
By the time Turner reached the age of sixty-five, much of his fortune and power had diminished, although he was acknowledged as the largest private landholder and philanthropist in America. Long a philanthropist with deep pockets, Turner pledged a $1 billion gift to the United Nations in 1997; his is believed to be the largest donation by a single private individual in history. Turner has also given money and attention to efforts to protect the environment. Since 1991 the Turner Foundation has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to environmental conservation and protection efforts. In 2001 Turner funded the Nuclear Threat Initiative (which he cochairs with former U.S. senator Sam Nunn) for $250 million.
The beginning of the end of Turner’s career in communications came in 2000, when Time Warner merged with America Online (AOL) to complete the largest corporate union in history. Although stock prices were high in the beginning, Turner made little secret of his discomfort both with the merger and with the fact that he was not chosen to lead the conglomerate. At one time Turner owned more than $10.7 billion in AOL/Time Warner stock, but in 2003, as stock prices plummeted, Turner sold half of his holdings (at a loss of some $8 billion) and resigned as vice chairman. He continued to serve on the Time Warner board until May 2006, when he resigned at the organization’s annual meeting in Atlanta. Turner retained 33 million shares of the company’s stock upon his departure.
In 2003 Turner owned 1.9 million acres of land (more than twenty-five parcels in ten states and two countries). After purchasing his first ranch in 1989, Turner spent more than $500 million on land over the next fifteen years. An interest in bison also led Turner to establish Ted’s Montana Grill, a chain of bison meat restaurants, in 2003. Today, the successful chain includes restaurants in sixteen states.
Turner remains in the public spotlight through his business and philanthropic activities, as well as his political activism. In late 2004 Turner announced that the Nuclear Threat Initiative would donate $500,000 toward an upgrade of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network. This network, founded by the Canadian government, searches the Internet for unusual health reports around the world and serves as an early warning system for potential disease outbreaks or bioterrorist attacks. In early 2005 Turner again made headlines by attacking the politically conservative Fox News Network, owned by his longtime rival Rupert Murdoch, as a “propaganda voice” for the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush.
In March 2005 the American Advertising Federation inducted Turner into the Advertising Hall of Fame, the highest honor in the advertising industry. The following year, Turner received the Delta Prize for Global Understanding, a joint award from Delta Airlines and the University of Georgia, in recognition of “his philanthropic efforts to bring peace and environmental health to our global society.” In 2010 he was inducted as a Georgia Trustee, an honor conferred by the Georgia Historical Society and the Office of the Governor.
He published his autobiography, Call Me Ted, in 2008.