Spotlight: Cable News Upstart


en-tre-pre-neur. A person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.

Ted Turner comes out of the south like Rhett Butler at the helm of one of his gun-running pirate ships. The mustache is a carbon copy of the one Clark Gable wore, and his two sons by his side are named Rhett and Beauregard (his wife wouldn't let him name their daughter Scarlett). He has invaded the domain of the networks' oligopolistic control of sports and promises to do the same now with news.

Turner's 24-hour, all-news network was set to begin service on June 1. The Cable News Network (CNN) will provide detailed analytical coverage of breaking news and important issues to an initial audience that could be four million subscribers. The "big three" networks all publicly scoff at the hint of any real threat to their control of the market. But if past performance is any indication of Turner's entrepreneurial expertise, they may be whistling in the dark. Turner is a producer, and proud of it.

He gives most of the credit for his success to his father. Old man Turner is certainly the mold for the flamboyant, straight-shooting, and sometimes noisy "mouth of the south." Before Ted left his academic career unfinished at Brown University, where he majored in the classics, he had a letter from his father published in the school paper. Turner Senior called Aristotle and Plato "old bastards" and ended the letter: "You are rapidly becoming a jackass, and the sooner you get out of that filthy atmosphere, the better.…You are in the hands of the Pharisees, and damnit, I sent you there. Devotedly, Dad." Turner concurs today, "The economics department at my school would have been better placed in the Soviet Union." As a child, Turner's father required him to read a book every two days. When he began digging post holes for his father's billboard business, he was required to pay half his salary back as rent.

After his father's death, Ted, at age 24, took over the family's failing company. Refusing the advice of his father's financial advisors to sell the business, which was $6 million in debt, he hired additional sales people, reworked old contracts, and turned the business into a success. His success has continued. Turner Communications has become a conglomerate of impressive proportions. His UHF "superstation"—Atlanta's WTBS Channel 17—is fed via satellite to 7.3 million cable subscribers in 48 states. The fare includes movies, sports, reruns, and BBC programming. He owns 30 percent of all television rights to the old movies seen in the Western world. He owns several billboard companies and satellite cables (WCTG-TV in Atlanta and WRET-TV in Charlotte). His connection with the Atlanta Braves and several other baseball and basketball teams is legend in the world of sports.

The Cable News Network could change the meaning of news broadcasting; Turner hopes to change the face of America. Mixed in with the profit motive is Turner's belief that one of the major reasons for the loss of dynamism in the American economy and the misdirection of American politics is basic human ignorance of what's happening. Turner told REASON, "It's pretty hard for the networks to screw up the news when it's only 22 minutes long, but there's an emphasis on the sensational because the networks compete head-to-head for ratings."

Daniel Schorr, formerly of CBS News, who will be Turner's senior Washington correspondent, thinks Turner can make CNN work. "He's convinced that the networks are waiting to be taken," Schorr said, "and he's putting his money where his big mouth is."

Perhaps the achievement that reveals the most about Turner is his winning of the America's Cup in 1977 with his yacht Courageous. The America's Cup is more than the Super Bowl of sailing; it is a truly worldwide competition of yachting's fiercest elite. Industrialists and royalty alike have squandered fortunes trying to capture the America's Cup without success. And Turner took it.

There is no profit in that kind of sailing—only the knowledge of achievement. For all his material gain, Ted is not a materialist. He believes people should produce in order to be producers. "True happiness comes from trying to be great—a great writer, a great executive, a great sailor. If you try to be the best, you'll be a whole lot happier than someone just trying to make a lot of money to have a lot of things."

His personal philosophy is as colorful as his lifestyle. The stories you may have heard about Turner putting "WHO IS JOHN GALT?" on his companies' empty billboards is true. "I did it not only because I think Atlas Shrugged is a book that should be read by every thinking person, but it was good for the sign company. The billboard was simple black and white. You know, they say, 'When everyone is shouting, a whisper is heard.' It attracted attention. It was good for business."

Libertarians may have been disappointed when Turner testified in favor of some regulation of the airwaves, but it may have been in self-defense. "The FCC is in the process of realizing there's not enough networks," he explains. "The FCC wasn't the trouble. I had to fight the broadcasting establishment. The three networks lobbied and did other things to keep out cable. It was a very close battle; it's still going on. They are very powerful. General managers of television stations can really affect politicians at election time. They depend heavily on coverage." One hopes that he realizes that lobbies would be ineffective if government did not control the airwaves.

About the state of the world, Turner says: "We are in the process of squandering the greatest form of government, the greatest prosperity the world has ever known. Half the world is communist, on the verge of a dark age, and we are in danger of falling into it. Our freedom of thought and speech is threatened, and a lot of the blame goes to the media—primarily television, for its failure to deal with the problems."

What would he say to those who point out the immensity of the task of changing the minds of a whole country, of educating masses that don't seem to want to be educated? In my mind, I think I can hear him say, "Frankly, my dear…"

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.