Ted Turner, the Alexander the Great of Television

Tim Wu’s The Master Switch tells the story of how America’s information empires—from the AT&T monopoly to today’s Internet giants—have been shaped by disruptive inventions, federal intervention, and, above all, a will to power. This week, based in part on excerpts from The Master Switch, Wu will present the stories of five men who disproportionately influenced the shape of the American information industries in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Ted Turner

In 1968, a businessman named Ted Turner purchased WJRJ, a small UHF station in Atlanta, Ga., that was still broadcasting in black and white. It didn’t take long after that for Turner to develop grandiose ambitions for the conquest of television, a master plan founded on the idea of the cable network. “Television,” announced Turner with prophetic zeal, “has led us, in the last 25 years, down the path of destruction. I intend to turn it around before it is too late.”

Ted Turner hardly needs introduction. Yet while he is known to the public mainly as the larger-than-life, bipolar enfant terrible who founded CNN, his greatest claim to immortality may be his role in birthing an entirely new industrial model. Turner is, if anything, under-credited as an industrial innovator. He made a critical imaginative leap respecting what cable could be, one that finally brought the medium invented in 1926 into an era of wide-open entrepreneurism and experimentation. Seeing cable’s potential as far more than an adjunct to broadcast television, he made practical the use of cable lines to carry a national TV network.

In personality, Turner is a man in the mold of media giants like Theodore Vail or Adolph Zukor, albeit with a much more public private life and wilder mood swings. “You only have one life,” he once said. “You might as well make it a great one.” Like Steve Ross, he was seemingly incapable of thinking small, a trait that fed his will to own or possess very large or famous things. By 2000, he was the biggest individual landowner in the United States, with the biggest herd of buffalo in the world. He married film and fitness icon Jane Fonda and won the America’s Cup, sailing’s greatest prize.

Not surprisingly, Turner has been an irresistible subject for biographers—there have been four accounts published, not counting his own, Call Me Ted. These books relate a seemingly inexhaustible stream of manic exertions: daring business strategies, sexual exploits, and a fierce competitiveness in all things. Chroniclers tend to credit, or blame, Turner’s father, an abusive drunk who frequently whipped the young Ted with a coat hanger, even occasionally forcing the boy to whip him as a bizarre alternative form of punishment.

While such sordid details may seem irrelevant to the rise of cable TV, it’s undeniably true that the mogul makes the medium. Turner styled himself as a heroic swashbuckler, an underdog fighting the brutal domination of the networks. And so cable, when it finally took off, reflected the scrappy, overzealous character of its pioneer: wildly ambitious, bombastic, fearless, and always on the edge of total failure. Turner characterized himself as the industry’s Alexander the Great: “I can do more today in communications than any conqueror ever could have done,” he proclaimed. “I want to be the hero of my country.”

It was by this instinctive will to power that Turner transformed the cable industry. By dint of completely idiosyncratic programming choices, he turned around Channel 17, the failing little UHF station in Atlanta. But that wasn’t enough: He wanted to run a major national network like ABC, CBS, or NBC. For an outsider like Turner, that was a laughable aspiration given the history of radio and television. But he was determined to find a way.

Let’s back up and review why it was so hard to start a TV network. For decades, the broadcast triopoly was among the most jealously protected industries in the United States, a fortress in the information world rivaled only by AT&T’s monopoly. From the late 1920s onward, the challenge of licensing space on the broadcast frequency spectrum was the main barrier to entry, and a mighty one: The FCC flatly limited the number of stations in each market, and to succeed, one had to be an affiliate of an existing network. At the same time, cable, an alternative means of carrying television, was kept in a carefully constructed regulatory cage that blocked its expansion into major cities.

Turner did what had seemed impossible when, in 1976, he managed to create the first cable network—that is, the first station available on basic cable all over the country. He did it by substituting the new technology of satellites for AT&T’s long-distance lines. With a satellite, you could take a single station signal, beam it up into space, and then beam it back down to a cable operator in New Jersey or Michigan. What Turner created was, technically, not so much a network as a “superstation”—a single station available around the country. Yet this was, in effect, the prototype of our cable networks.

The use of satellites to carry television signals was not an idea that originated with Ted Turner. The Home Box Office network, or HBO, had used this technology since 1972 to offer cable subscribers so-called “pay TV”—premium content like championship boxing matches and feature films. But pay TV, however significant an innovation, was less an assault on than a complement to the networks. By making his channel available across the country on basic cable, Turner was going head-to-head with the big three. While he started small, at first enlisting just four cable systems scattered across the country, Turner was always thinking big.

Sensible as Turner’s business model was, it was easier said than done in the late 1970s. “I knew it was going to be hard to convince the New York advertising community [of the network’s viability], but I had no idea how hard,” he recalled. “My first team of salesmen ended up like the soldiers in the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. They were mowed down to a man.”

Ted Turner at the 1995 World Series with wife Jane Fonda

While Turner described himself as a valiant liberator and cast the networks as oppressive scoundrels, in content his programming fell short of inspiring. His network was built on sitcom reruns, old movies, cartoons, and Atlanta Braves games. (Turner bought the team in 1976, in part to secure content for his station.) He found an audience for classics of a bygone time, along with slightly down-market content like professional wrestling. Nonetheless, he would find glorious terms even for retreads and junk, claiming to be pulling America back to television’s golden age: “I want to get it back to the principles” he once said, “that made us good.” Nostalgic, Manichean, and boot-strappy: like programmer, like programming.

The cable industry boomed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as nearly a dozen cable networks launched based on the Turner model. They include much of what we now consider the staples of cable TV, including ESPN, MTV, Bravo, Showtime, BET, the Discovery Channel, and the Weather Channel. Those are the better-known channels only by virtue of having survived; others, such as ARTS, CBS Cable, and the Satellite News Channel, folded or were acquired by other companies.

Turner himself joined the rush he had created, launching the Cable News Network in 1980. Turner’s creation of CNN shows the marvelous plasticity of his theories of programming. His original station carried almost no news, and he had once declared, “I hate news. News is evil. It makes people feel bad.” Yet with most of the nation still tuning into the big three’s evening news broadcasts, Turner spied an opportunity for profit (as well as mischief, perhaps) that was too great to ignore.Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.