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If you like Ted Turner's story, you might also like:
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Ray Dalio,
Michael Dell,
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Ted Turner is also featured in the Audio Recordings area of this web site.

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Ted Turner
Ted Turner
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Ted Turner Interview

Founder, Cable News Network

October 20, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Ted Turner

Let's talk about your early days in broadcasting. In 1975, RCA's Satcom II was launched, and you immediately hopped on it. What were you thinking, to get into satellite broadcasting so fast?

Ted Turner: I read the broadcasting magazines, and they wrote several stories about Home Box Office, and they planned to go on the satellite with their pay movie service and try and get cable systems to sign up, and it required a large receiver. Everybody thought at the time -- it cost close to $100,000 -- and that was going to really restrict a number of cable systems that were going to be able to afford a satellite dish. But very quickly, we learned that you could get by with smaller dishes than that.

The technology changed and started evolving very rapidly. It really had, ever since television got started, or since the industrial revolution. Technology has moved generally faster and faster in certain areas where technology is important.

There are certain things, like growing radishes, that technology hasn't really changed very much, but television, I feel like it was a pretty high tech business. Certainly it was in the early days of television, and I just kept up with what was going on technologically and took advantage of the new equipment and new ways of doing things from the very beginning. In business, or in life -- or in military engagements, which I'd studied a lot -- it's the old saying, "Get there firstest with the mostest," and so forth. And that's what I tried to do in business, and I did, because the record speaks for itself. I started with virtually nothing. In 1970, which was my first year in the television business, we had 35 employees at the station in Atlanta, and we did $600,000 in business. Thirty-five employees. When I merged with Time Warner in 1995, which was 25 years later, we had 12,000 employees, and we did two-and-a-half billion dollars. Instead of losing a million dollars, which we did the first year, we made close to $250 million profit, and that was in 25 years.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

You did something right! Tell us about your vision for the first Superstation. A lot of people thought that was just crazy.

Ted Turner: I can certainly understand how they could think that.

It was probably crazy. Take a local station, put it on the satellite. And there were regulations against it, but they changed the regulations, and I started lobbying. A lot of the battles that we fought in the television business were fought, to a large degree, in Washington, against the networks, the broadcasters, against the motion picture studios, and against the sports leagues that didn't want us to take our little station and take the programming and run it all over the country and basically create a national network that was based on local programming. But we were able to convince Congress that it would be good for business, because it would create competition to the three networks where there was none before.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

You must have really had to believe in yourself. There were scoffers saying, "This is crazy. Nobody will ever want to watch this."

Ted Turner: Nobody will ever want to watch it? Why wouldn't they want to watch it? If they wanted to watch it in Atlanta, why wouldn't they want to watch it in Seattle?

We had been running movies and situation comedies like Andy Griffith and Green Acres, off network. We had off-network stuff, and very quickly, I got the Braves baseball. So we had baseball games on, where very few markets -- only the biggest markets that had local baseball teams -- had local coverage. Most of America only got a Saturday afternoon game on NBC, and all of a sudden, here was a complete slate of 150 baseball games, most of them in prime time. So people in Nebraska and North Dakota and South Dakota, Hawaii and Alaska could have a team to cheer for that they never had before. No, it was good programming. We carried wrestling, and people liked that. Wrestling, baseball, basketball and movies and some other sporting events that we could get our hands on. We had a very, very viable, popular network there.

And it eventually started making money. It took a long time. I was so poor for a long time. Nielsen wouldn't give us the ratings for several years. I had to threaten to sue them to rate us. So we didn't even have ratings, and we didn't show up in the rating books because we didn't meet the minimum requirements. The only way I could tell what our audience was is the things that we sold on the air.

We didn't have hardly any commercials -- regular commercials like Procter & Gamble or Budweiser or Coca Cola. They didn't buy us because we weren't -- for the most part, they wouldn't buy us because we didn't have ratings and we were too small. But we were able to sell records and tapes and Crazy Glue and things like that. People would mail -- usually they would mail a check for $19.95 in, plus shipping and handling. What I would do is to see where they came from, and I would separate the letters. The letters from Atlanta would go here, and the letters from outside of Atlanta would go over here, and if I got 100 letters in Atlanta and I got 200 outside of Atlanta, I figured the audience was twice as big outside of Atlanta as it was inside of Atlanta. While I was going through these letters -- I swear to God, this is the truth -- it turns out that about one out of ten letters -- the Post Office department was real sloppy, and they wouldn't stamp them. You know? It was a used postage stamp. So I would tear those postage stamps off, and we'd use them again on our outgoing mail to save money. The Chairman of the Board was up there pulling the stamps off the letters. That's a funny story, isn't it?

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And for 20 years, I lived in my office.

Lived in it?

Ted Turner: I lived in my office. I lived on a couch in my office for ten years, and then luckily, I got wealthy enough to build a little penthouse on the roof -- 700 square feet -- and I moved up there. It was a lot nicer. I just walked up the stairs one floor. My office was on the top floor, and I just walked up to go to bed, and that way, I had another hour to work every day, because when I walked downstairs, I was instantly in my office without having to fight traffic. So I was able to work an hour. I went to the games at night, and I'd get home at 11:00. I'd come back in the office, and I was right there: 7:00 when I woke up, to be at work at 8:00. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I liked it. I mean almost. Sometimes I'd go home to see my wife and family. I still live in my office. I live up above in a penthouse over my office building in Atlanta. The restaurant is down on the ground floor. So if I'm hungry, I just go down to the restaurant and eat and get a meal and then go back up, and I'm right there.

That says something about your work ethic.

Ted Turner: I did find time to race in hundreds of sailboat races all over the world, but I stayed busy. I have to say that.

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This page last revised on Nov 20, 2007 19:05 EDT
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