Chairman, Nuclear Threat Initiative; former president and chairman of the board, Turner Broadcasting System; former president, Atlanta Braves; former chairman of the board, Atlanta Hawks
Born: November 19, 1938, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Education: Attended Brown University, 1956–1959.
Family: Son of Robert Edward Turner Jr. and Florence (Rooney) Turner; married Judy Gale Nye, 1960 (divorced, 1962); married Jane Shirley Smith, 1964 (divorced, 1988); married Jane Fonda, 1991 (divorced, 2001); children: five (first marriage, two; second marriage, three).
Career: Turner Advertising Company, 1960–1962, branch manager; 1962–1963, assistant general manager; 1963–1970, president, chief executive officer, and chairman of the board; Turner Broadcasting System, 1970–1996, president and chairman of the board; Atlanta Braves, 1976–2003, president; Atlanta Hawks, 1977–2003, chairman of the board; Time Warner, 1996–2001, vice chairman of the board; AOL Time Warner, 2001–2003, vice chairman of the board.
Awards: Regional Employer of the Year, Atlanta Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1976; President's Award, National Cable Television Association, 1979; Outstanding Entrepreneur of the Year, Sales Marketing and Management magazine, 1979; Hall of Fame inductee, Promotion and Marketing Association, 1980; Salesman of the Year, Sales and Marketing Executives, 1980; Private Enterprise Exemplar Medal, Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, 1980; Ace Special Recognition Award, National Cable Television Association, 1980; Communicator of the Year, Public Relations Society of America, 1981; Communicator of the Year, New York Broadcasters, 1981; International Communicator of the Year, Sales and Marketing Executives, 1981; National News Media Award, Veterans of Foreign Wars, 1981; Distinguished Service in Telecommunications Award, Ohio University College of Communications, 1982; Carr Van Anda Award, Ohio
University School of Journalism, 1982; Special Award, Edinburgh International Television Festival, 1982; Media Awareness Award, United Vietnam Veterans, 1983; Special Olympics Award, Special Olympics Committee, 1983; World Telecommunications Pioneer Award, New York State Broadcasters Association, 1984; Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement, 1984; Outstanding Supporter Award, National Boy Scout Council, 1984; Distinguished Achievement Award, University of Georgia, 1985; Lifetime Achievement Award, New York International Film and Television Festival, 1984; Tree of Life Award, Jewish National Fund, 1985; Hall of Fame inductee, National Association for Sport and Physical Education, 1986; Life Achievement Award, Popular Culture Association, 1986; Golden Ace Award, National Cable Television Academy, 1987; Sol Taishoff Award, National Press Foundation, 1988; Citizen Diplomat Award, Center for Soviet-American Dialogue, 1988; President's Award, National Cable Television Association, 1989; Paul White Award, Radio and Television News Directors Association, 1989; Business Marketer of the Year, American Marketing Association, 1989; Distinguished Service Award, Simon Wiesenthal Center, 1990; Man of the Year, Time magazine, 1991.
Publications: The Racing Edge (with Gary L. Jobson), 1979; Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way (with Christian Williams), 1981; Ted Turner Speaks: Insights from the World's Greatest Maverick (with Janet Lowe), 1999.
Address: Nuclear Threat Initiative, 1747 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 7th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20006; http://www.nti.org.
■ Few business leaders have been as eccentric and unpredictable as Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III. He took pleasure in choosing goals that seemed impossible to achieve. He created the first "superstation" television station, WTBS, which broadcast nationwide through a network of local cable television operators. He invented live television broadcasting of news events as they happened. In addition to making himself one of the world's foremost businessmen, he became the dominant figure in sailboat racing, winning an unprecedented number of ocean sailing events. He did this despite a severe mental handicap and a tendency to be tactless on any occasion, which earned him the enduring nickname of the "Mouth of the South."
Turner's father, Robert Edward (Ed) Turner Jr. made a fortune in billboard advertising. He may have suffered from bipolar disorder, sometimes called manic depression, a disease of mood swings from mania to depression that makes it difficult for sufferers to form close personal relationships. Ed abused his son with severe, often unmotivated beatings using coat hangers and straps.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Ed enlisted in the navy and was posted to bases along the Gulf Coast. He took his wife and daughter with him but left his son, Ted, behind in a Cincinnati boarding school. Isolating his son from his family would become a pattern for Ed. In 1947 Ed moved his family to Savannah, Georgia, where he purchased a billboard advertising company. Ted was placed in the Georgia Military Academy near Atlanta.
In a rare moment of generosity, Ed gave his son a Penguin sailing dinghy in 1949. One of the family's African American domestics, Jimmy Brown, taught Ted how to sail and would become the man Ted regarded throughout his life as his true father. In September 1950 Ted was sent to McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Considered an elite boarding school, McCallie included military training and discipline in its curriculum. Ted immediately set about breaking rules. For every demerit a student earned, he was to walk a quarter mile on a weekend, but Ted racked up so many demerits—1,000—that he could not have possibly walked the required miles, and the school had to find new ways to punish students. Eventually, Ted advanced from troublemaker to student leader at McCallie.
Ted wanted to attend the United States Naval Academy, but his father demanded that he attend Harvard. A "C" student, Turner was rejected by Harvard, but Brown University accepted him in 1956. Ed's pleasure in his son's attending an Ivy League school turned to rage when he learned that Ted, who loved reading, planned to major in the classics. In 1959 Ted's parents divorced, and Ted was expelled from Brown for having a woman visit him in his room.
On June 23, 1960, Ted married Judy Gale Nye, a young woman he had met while pursuing his passion for sailing. She proved to be his match as a sailor and was tough and outspoken, but the marriage became a rivalry so intense that Ted once rammed her boat during a race to prevent her from beating him. The couple divorced in 1962.
In 1960 Ed made his son branch manager at Turner Advertising's office in Macon, Georgia. Ted's skills in sales more than doubled the office's revenue in a year, and in 1962 he became assistant manager of the Atlanta branch. As Ted proceeded to increase the company's customer base in Atlanta, Ed continually expanded Turner Advertising, eventually buying out a competitor. However, the buyout generated a significant amount of debt, making Ed fearful of going bankrupt. On March 5, 1963, seemingly in good spirits, he had a pleasant breakfast and then went into the bathroom and shot himself in the head.
After his father's death, Ted Turner became president and chief executive officer of Turner Advertising. The suicide also left him without the person he most wanted to impress with his success and a feeling that he might someday emulate his father's death. Turner immediately fought to retain his father's company intact, fighting efforts to buy pieces of it. With brilliant salesmanship he expanded Turner Advertising's clientele, thereby bringing in enough money to pay debts and stabilize the company's finances. On June 2, 1964, Turner married Jane Shirley Smith. Almost from the start, the marriage was unhappy, with Turner's compulsive womanizing a torment to his wife. He plunged himself into work and sailboat racing, winning many tournaments.
By 1970 Turner owned the largest advertising company in the southeast, but he worried about inroads into the billboard business made by radio and television. That year he made one of his typical leaps of faith by buying the Atlanta UHF television station WJRJ, which had lost $800,000 in 1969. Turner renamed his company Turner Communications Group and the station to WTCG. Six months later he bought the Charlotte, North Carolina, UHF station WRET, which was also losing money.
In 1971 WTCG lost $500,000, but Turner started buying old black-and-white motion pictures, adding them to the station's programming and increasing its viewership. Because Turner bought the movies outright, he could show them endlessly without paying royalties. In 1972 WTCG broke even. That year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed its regulations to allow cable television services to import signals from distant stations, and WTCG began using microwave transmissions and relays to send its signal to cable television operators. WTCG became a moneymaker, netting $1 million in 1973.
On December 2, 1975, RCA's SATCOM II communications satellite was launched, and Turner immediately rented a channel on it. He had a huge broadcasting dish erected in a small hollow in Georgia to send WTCG's signal to the satellite, from which it was beamed to cable television stations throughout the United States, mostly in isolated, rural areas. On January 6, 1976, Turner made a surprise bid for and bought the Atlanta Braves major league baseball team, which was losing money and was probably headed for another city. At the same time, Turner hired satellite expert Ed Taylor, a vice president at Western Union, to oversee his satellite operations. When FCC rules forbade Turner to own a station and the service that sent its signal to cable operators, he created Southern Satellite, which he then sold to Taylor for one dollar (eventually making Taylor very rich), and on December 27, 1976, the FCC approved Southern Satellite as a common carrier. Turner renamed WTCG to WTBS (for Turner Broadcasting System) and began broadcasting motion pictures and, in 1977, Atlanta Braves games all over the United States. This made WTBS the first superstation—a station that reached a large audience outside its home region. By 1978 WTBS reached more than 2 million homes.
Late in 1976 Turner bought 95 percent of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, and he created Turner Enterprises to look after his land holdings. In addition, he announced he was going to sign the left fielder Gary Matthews to the Atlanta Braves, taking the player from the San Francisco Giants in violation of a rule against tampering with another team's personnel. Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn threatened to suspend Turner, and he spent much of baseball's winter meetings seemingly drunk out of his mind and threatening to kill Kuhn. Eventually, two of Turner's company officers had to drag Turner out of harm's way, and Kuhn suspended him for the entire 1977 season.
He took advantage of the time away from his baseball team by entering the 1977 America's Cup race. In a dramatic series of contests in mild weather, his outdated yacht Courageous defeated its competition with clever, bold tacking to win the right to defend the America's Cup against the world's challenger. In somewhat less calm weather, Turner and a crew comprising veterans in their fifties and young men won the America's Cup. Turner was too drunk to stand up during the victory celebration and was remembered for falling from his seat to the floor during presentations of the competition's awards.
Turner's greatest feat of sailing was probably in the August 1979 Fastnet race. This venerable competition required boats to sail 605 nautical miles from Plymouth, England, around Fastnet Rock near the coast of Ireland, and back to Plymouth. In 1979 a terrible storm hit; only 92 of the 302 boats that started finished the race. Twenty-two lives were lost, and many more were injured. Turner's attitude was one of win or die, and he kept his boat Tenacious at full sail even as other boats were flipped over by the gale-force winds. Tenacious itself seemed swamped at one time, but Turner refused to abandon ship. The Tenacious won one of the deadliest sailboat races in history.
In June 1980 Turner sold WRET for $20 million to help finance his latest idea, an all-news cable network. He launched the Cable News Network (CNN) to mostly negative press. Most journalists believed that no one wanted to watch news all day, a view with which the major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, agreed. Further, the prevailing view was that covering news for television required spending a huge amount of money that only the major networks could afford to spend. CNN originally included many long feature stories into its mix of news coverage, and it received some criticism for covering too much soft news—that is, news without much presentation of data. On January 1, 1982, Turner responded to this with CNN II, also called Headline News, which repeated the top stories of the day every half hour.
CNN did not make a profit until 1985, but by then it was evident that the bottom line did not motivate Turner as much as his unrelenting desire to be the first to do something. Nonetheless, wealth seemed to flow to him. In 1985 he launched CNN International, offering his broadcast services to cable and satellite television services around the world, and he founded a companion network, CNNRadio. In an effort to put some of his social ideas to work, he founded and funded the Better World Society, through which he advocated disarmament of nuclear weapons, environmental protection, and peaceful international relations. In that year his wife persuaded him to see psychiatrist Dr. Frank Pittman, who diagnosed Turner as having bipolar disorder and put Turner on heavy doses of lithium to try to control the disease. After several months Turner's colleagues noted improvement in his behavior, although Turner never completely let go of some of his wild impulses.
In 1986 CNN introduced flyaway dishes—satellite dishes that could be folded up for transport in aircraft or trucks and then set up anywhere—allowing CNN reporters to broadcast from anywhere in the world in real time, with no delays between when events occurred and when television viewers could see them. Turner tried to buy CBS, but CBS's management successfully fought him off with a harsh negative publicity campaign. On March 25, 1986, Turner gave up his effort to buy CBS and instead purchased MGM Entertainment Company, including United Artists (MGM/UA), from Kirk Kerkorian for $1.6 billion, acquiring 3,650 motion pictures, including popular classics such as Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane (Turner's favorite), and Casablanca . Lacking the financing to hold MGM/UA together, he retained all the rights to the motion pictures while selling everything else back to Kerkorian, losing $100 million on the deal and generating much negative press about the bad deal he had made. However, that year alone, he made $125 million in revenue from the old MGM motion pictures.
Next, hoping to buy the broadcasting rights to the 1988 Olympics, he approached the Soviet Union to become partners with WTBS in purchasing the world broadcasting rights. The Soviet Union turned down that offer but joined Turner in creating the Goodwill Games, an opportunity for the world's athletes to measure themselves against each other in a non-Olympic year. The first Goodwill Games were held in Moscow in 1986, and Turner lost $26 million on the venture.
In 1987 Turner began colorizing MGM black-and-white motion pictures, generating protests from film critics and filmmakers. Eventually, Turner made millions of dollars from colorizing old favorites such as Miracle on 34th Street , and he applied the technology to Gone with the Wind to bring back the vibrant colors that had faded on the original print. In 1988 he expanded his cable network empire by creating Turner Network Television, which quickly became a staple of cable offerings. That year he and his second wife divorced.
In 1989, as Communism waned, more than a million young Chinese filled Beijing's Tiananmen Square, calling for a democratic government. On May 20 that year the Chinese army, led by tanks, plowed into the square, killing thousands of young people. CNN covered the event live, showing everything exactly as it happened. It marked a revolutionary moment in broadcasting that not only made people immediately aware of faraway events but also made CNN indispensable for governments everywhere. Direct feeds were installed in government buildings and embassies. The CNN crew was even able to broadcast Chinese officials shutting down CNN's broadcasting site, up to the moment of ending transmission.
In 1990 the Goodwill Games were staged in Seattle, and Turner lost $44 million on them. In 1991 he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year for his influence on broadcast communications. He purchased the cartoon collection of Hanna-Barbera, consisting of more than 8,500 cartoons, and used them to help launch his Cartoon Network in 1992. In addition, he closed the Better World Society and created the Turner Family Foundation, which gave away $10 million in 1992. Amidst this flurry of activity, he started dating Jane Fonda in 1991 and married her on December 21, 1991.
Few relationships elicited more press coverage than the marriage of Turner and Fonda, two wounded but domineering personalities. Fonda found in Turner a man who paid attention to her, who gave her respect and romance. Turner thought Fonda cute and found in her an intelligence equal to his own—an irresistibly challenging woman. They attended Atlanta Braves games, giving photographers indelible images such as Turner asleep, head on Fonda's shoulder as his team rallied in the World Series, and Fonda doing the tomahawk chop during Braves rallies.
In 1993 Turner Broadcasting System bought Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema, expanding the company's motion picture holdings and its production capacity with new studios. In 1994 Turner founded the cable channel Turner Classic Movies, taking advantage of his huge film library. The Goodwill Games were held in St. Petersburg, Russia; Turner lost $40 million on them. By this time his attention was turning away from business toward social causes, particularly environmentalism.
By 1996 he owned more than one million acres of land in the United States and Argentina, becoming America's second largest landowner. In Montana he bought thousands of acres and started returning the land to the state it was in 200 years earlier, including introducing a herd of bison. In 1996 Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time Warner, with Turner becoming vice chairman of the board of Time Warner, running all of the company's cable and production operations. He was the company's largest shareholder with 11 percent of its stock. He had long wished to found an all-sports network, and in late 1996 began CNNSI (combining CNN and Time Warner's publication, Sports Illustrated ).
His fortune grew by $1 billion in nine months, and in accordance with his impulsive style, he pledged it to humanitarian services of the United Nations, at the rate of $100 million per year for ten years. On March 17, 1997, he launched CNN en Español, an all-Spanish cable channel. In 1999 Time Warner paid Turner $700,000 in salary and a $6.9 million bonus, as well as stock options.
Turner detested Christianity and often made fun of it, a result of witnessing the horribly agonizing death of one of his sisters when he was young. When Fonda became a born-again Christian in the late 1990s, Turner was outraged because they had never discussed her conversion before it happened; she had worried that the brilliantly persuasive Turner would talk her out of it. The couple divorced in 2001. On January 8, 2001, Turner and former United States Senator Sam Nunn launched the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization dedicated to lessening the dangers of nuclear and other weapons. That year Time Warner merged with AOL to become AOL Time Warner. AOL was in dire financial straits, costing the company hundreds of millions of dollars. Even after dropping AOL from the company's name, Turner saw his stock value drop $7 billion. In 2002 Turner helped organize the firing of the company's chairman, Steve Case, but he was not named to replace Case as he had hoped. In late January 2003 he resigned his vice chairmanship.
See also entries on Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. and Time Warner Inc. in International Directory of Company Histories .
Bibb, Porter, It Ain't as Easy as It Looks: Ted Turner's Amazing Story , New York: Crown, 1993.
Brands, H. W., Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey , New York: Free Press, 1999.
Landrum, Gene N., Profiles of Genius: Thirteen Creative Men Who Changed the World , Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993.
—Kirk H. Beetz