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 questions 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. Another great thing was our purchase of the MGM library, which was the basis behind Turner Classic Movies. I’m also very impressed — I think everyone is — with the success of the Cartoon Network. I’m proud of almost everything we did at Turner Broadcasting. We had to get really creative, especially in the beginning, but we pulled it off.
As an innovator and entrepreneur, what do you think of the streaming media marketplace versus the cable business as it evolved in the 1980s and ’90s?
It’s been so long since I’ve been in the cable industry that I really haven’t given much thought to its current function. I just know it’s changed immensely since I was running things at Turner, and there are a lot more players involved now.
Do you keep up with technology and social media? What do you make of the exponential growth of communications and the speed at which information travels now? CNN was the engine that drove the emergence of the 24/7 news cycle.
My social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are managed by my PR and communications department, where we primarily share news about my foundations, ranches, Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants and my hospitality business, Ted Turner Reserves. I also like to see what my friends and fellow philanthropists are doing in the world. Other than that, I don’t rely too much on social media for news or entertainment, but I think it’s great that information is traveling even more swiftly than it was when I was at CNN.
You were so far ahead of the curve in the 1980s to buy the MGM and RKO movie libraries and stock up on timeless content. Do you feel vindicated for all the risks you took to acquire those vaults?
I’ve always subscribed to the notion that calculated risk is necessary to achieve any real success in business. Once you’ve weighed the possibilities, you have to take that final leap of faith, which is something I’ve done with some of my biggest business decisions, including the creation of CNN. The ultimate success I experienced with my purchase of the MGM library, TCM, CNN, TBS and the other networks is all the vindication I needed.
Did you ever have second thoughts about the purchase when your business ran into debt problems right after the deal?
It was certainly a stressful time, but I knew enough from my experience launching CNN that I needed to forge ahead and put forth our best effort with MGM. It was a risk I was willing to take.
What do you remember most about the business dealings with Kirk Kerkorian to buy the library? Was he tough? Was he tough when you went to sell back the studio assets?
Kirk Kerkorian and I had pleasant dealings throughout the whole process. Although it was disappointing to have to sell the studio back to him (minus the library) at a much lower price than I had paid, Kerkorian was honorable throughout and we even remained friends.
Did you envision launching a channel like Turner Classic Movies back in 1985?
It had crossed my mind years earlier when I was purchasing content for my TV station, WTCG Channel 17, in Atlanta. I had scooped up a lot of old films for WTCG that — to me — were undervalued. I knew that if these films were special to me, they were special to other people. It just wasn’t the right time to launch a network solely dedicated to classic movies; that opportunity became available several years down the road.
Do you regret producing the colorized versions of some classic movies?
I don’t regret it because I never thought it was wrong and still don’t, but we did receive a lot of backlash at the time. The truth is, the colorization process also involved restoring those classic films to their original glory, and it’s important to note that we never permanently altered the original black and whites. Our decision to colorize the films was based on the fact that by that time, just about everybody had color TVs, so it made sense. The advertising rates were also higher for colorized movies.
Do you watch TCM today?
Sure, I do. I don’t watch much television besides CNN, but I’ll catch something on TCM on occasion.
You famously feuded with Rupert Murdoch in the 1990s. Have you spent time with him since? Have you buried the hatchet?
Rupert and I have long since made amends. Years ago (I was out of the media industry at that point), I invited him to lunch at Ted’s Montana Grill in New York, and we had a great time catching up.