Sunday, May 18, 2008

CNN/TBS's Pre-1979 Hidden History

(The following article first appeared in the February 2, 1994 issue of the now-defunct alternative newsweekly, Downtown, when CNN was still controlled by Ted Turner)

The then-55-year-old former yachtsman and playboy who then headed the TBS media conglomerate of which CNN was then a subsidiary in 1994—Robert Edward “Ted” Turner III—inherited his father’s billboard advertising business in 1963 and was able to turn the family firm into a highly influential global enterprise in the years after President Kennedy was mysteriously assassinated. The son of Ed Turner and Florence Rooney Turner, Ted Turner was actually born in Cincinnati, Ohio—although he used to promote himself as “a Southern folk hero” and also became known as “The Mouth of the South” in the early 1970s.

After his ultra-right-wing father moved to Georgia, became a millionaire by selling ad space and purchased plantations in both South Carolina and Georgia, Ted Turner was sent up north to Brown University, where he was suspended for participating in a drunken brawl at a women’s college, prior to serving a six-month stint in the U.S. Coast Guard. Returning to Brown University to resume his studies, Turner was then expelled for violating Ivy League regulations which at that time prohibited men from entertaining women in Brown’s dormitories. A classmate of Turner named Alan Laymon recalled that “Ted…would also run around…bellowing Nazi battle hymns outside the Jewish frat house” while at Brown and “Ted also put signs `Warning from the Ku Klux Klan’ on the doors of the few blacks then at Brown” during his college years, according to It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks: Ted Turner’s Amazing Story by Porter Bibb.

After his expulsion from Brown, Turner returned to the South in late 1960 to become the general manager of the Macon, Georgia branch of his father’s business. Following his father’s March 1963 suicide, Turner became the president and chief executive of Turner Advertising Company prior to his 25th birthday. He also joined the Young Republicans because “he felt at ease among these budding conservatives and was merely following in Ed Turner’s far-right footsteps,” according to It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks.

During the Vietnam War Era, Turner’s billboard business, which “had virtual monopolies in Savannah, Macon, Columbus and Charleston” and was “the largest outdoor advertising company in the Southeast,” according to It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks, prospered. The same book also observed that after his father’s death, Turner “discovered his father had sheltered a substantial amount of taxable income over the years by personally lending it back to the company” and “discovered that the billboard business could be a gold mine, a tax-depreciable revenue stream that threw off enormous amounts of cash with almost no capital investment.” And in the late 1960s, Turner decided to use the super-profits his inherited billboard monopoly generated to get into the more glamorous world of radio and TV broadcasting, by purchasing some Southern radio and TV stations.

After the FCC, in 1975, allowed Turner’s WTCG-TV-Channel 17 station in Atlanta to begin using a satellite on Dec. 27, 1976 to broadcast old movies, situation-comedy re-runs, cartoons and sports events on a nation-wide basis to U.S. cable-TV subscribers as a “Super-Station,” Turner’s Atlanta TV station became an extremely profitable operation. By the end of 1978, Turner’s WTCG-TV Super-Station was reaching two million cable-TV subscribers and Turner was now worth about $100 million. He was, thus, now able to purchase a 5,000-acre plantation in Jacksonboro, South Carolina for $2 million.

(Downtown 2/2/94)

Next: CNN’s Historic Atlanta Braves/Hawks’ Sports Connection and Origins