Ted Turner Made Bold Request When He Founded TNT

Founder persuaded cable operators to pay a significant monthly subscriber fee

Fifteen cents a month — that’s all he asked.

Ted Turner broke ground with the launch of TNT in 1988 by persuading cable operators to pay a significant monthly subscriber fee for an entertainment channel. Until then, that kind of coin was reserved for regional sports channels, ESPN and his own CNN.

But Turner wanted TNT to be a major player in the primetime landscape, and for that he needed revenue, more so than what he could bring in from advertising.

“I figured I had the cable industry’s goodwill behind me for all the other things that I’d done, so they would go ahead and cough up the 15¢ a month,” Turner told Variety. He remembers laying out his pitch in a long meeting with John Malone, then the undisputed king of cable operators through Tele-Communications Inc., that smoothed the way with other MSOs.

“It was hard to get him to part with money,” Turner says. “Cable operators weren’t used to paying for programming. To the best of my recollection, (Malone) was begrudgingly supportive. And once he did (a deal), everybody did.”

TNT bowed with a subscriber base of about 20 million cable homes — a record at that time for a channel launch. Today, TNT commands monthly subscriber fees of about $1.33, or about $1.6 billion a year, according to SNL Kagan.

“It was a success from the day it launched,” Turner says. “We launched with ‘Gone With the Wind.’ That set a high standard. I figured if everything we did was a good as ‘Gone With the Wind,’ we’d be OK.”

Turner is proud of TNT’s position in the biz today, but he confesses he doesn’t have much time for TV these days.

“I’m working on trying to save humanity,” Turner says. “I’m trying to get everybody to stop burning fossil fuels.”

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