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Ted Turner

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipient, 2004

Chairman of Turner Enterprises, Inc.


At the official launch of the Cable News Network (CNN) on June 1, 1980, Ted Turner recited a poem by Ed Kessler that reflected Mr. Turner’s vision for CNN: "To act upon one’s convictions while others wait, to create a positive force in a world where cynics abound, to provide information to people when it wasn’t available before."

Flags of the State of Georgia, the United States and the United Nations flapped in the wind. A band played "The Star-Spangled Banner." At the end of the national anthem, Mr. Turner yelled "Awww-riiight!" CNN was on the air.

Changing the News

The Media Law Resource Center honors Ted Turner tonight for starting the Cable News Network, and, in so doing, changing the way news is delivered and used, here and abroad. He created 24-hour news — commonplace today — and brought the news of the world to the world.

Mr. Turner realized, before anyone else in the cable industry, the power of telecommunications to bring people together. At the launch of CNN, he told reporters that he hoped CNN would bring peace to the world.

"I’m going to travel around to every foreign country and get the head of the country to show me things he’s proudest of about his country. And send it all back by satellite," Mr. Turner said.

Starting a 24-hour news channel on cable television was a gamble in 1980. Americans were used to getting their news in the evening or early morning, at set times, and, more importantly, cable was a fledgling medium with few subscribers. Mr. Turner somehow sensed that all day news would eventually lure viewers, attracted by the prospect of seeing news "live" as it unfolded.

Today, CNN’s combined branded networks and services are available to more than 1.5 billion people in more than 212 countries and territories, and CNN operates 37 bureaus around the world.

Mr. Turner emphasized the importance of good journalism from the start and the success of CNN has made it a model that others, more than 20 years later, continue to emulate.

Robert Wright, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of NBC Universal, told Ken Auletta, a biographer of Mr. Turner, that "He sees the obvious before most people do. We all look at the same picture, but Ted sees what you don’t see. And after he sees it, it becomes obvious to everyone."

The Growth of CNN

The world’s first 24-hour news channel began amid widespread predictions of ultimate doom. It was initially mocked as the "Chicken Noodle Network." Though CNN focused more on domestic news, its international presence got an early boost in 1981 when Mr. Turner visited Cuba and learned Fidel Castro watched CNN from a signal in southern Florida. Mr. Turner convinced Castro to tape a promotional spot for the channel and Castro suggested Mr. Turner take it worldwide. CNN launched a signal to Asia in late 1982 and one to Europe in 1985. At a time when networks were closing foreign bureaus, Mr. Turner looked expansively.

In a recent interview with WGBH, Mr. Turner said that, "[CNN] was a democratization of information. For the first time in the history of the world, every world leader, and everybody in the world, had access to the same information at the same time."

The decision in the early 1980s to take CNN abroad was remarkable in that the channel only became profitable in the second half of the 1980s, five years after its launch. Mr. Turner recognized that it took time and money to realize his vision of CNN.

Coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 established CNN in global news. Mr. Turner told Tom Johnson, then President of CNN, to spend whatever he needed to cover the war. At the urging of the Bush administration, networks removed crews from Iraq as the war intensified, but not CNN. It was able to report the war "live." CNN’s ratings soared and other news organizations relied on CNN for that footage of the war.

General Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney admitted at a press conference during the Gulf War that much of their war information came from CNN. Indeed, CNN was being watched by senior government officials around the world, before, during and after the Gulf War. Mr. Turner was Time magazine’s 1991 Man of the Year, and Time would say "CNN is now the world’s most widely heeded news organization."

Time wrote that,

"The very definition of news was rewritten – from something that has happened to something that is happening at the very moment you are hearing of it. … CNN demonstrated that politics can be planetary, that ordinary people can take a deep interest in events remote from them in every way – and can respond to reportage in global rather than purely nationalistic terms."

Building an Empire

Mr. Turner was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on November 19, 1938 and moved with his family to Savannah, Georgia at age nine. He attended the military-oriented McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee from 1948-1956 and Brown University, where, in 1999, he was elected to the University’s board of directors.

Mr. Turner inherited his father’s billboard company in 1963. He was 24 years old but knew he wanted more than signs.

In 1970, Turner Communications purchased its first television property, Channel 17, an ultra-high frequency (UHF) station in Atlanta. The station operated with losses of $50,000 a month when Turner Communications acquired it. And then Mr. Turner decided to buy another UHF station, this one in Charlotte, North Carolina, which operated less poorly, with monthly losses of $30,000. The board of Turner Communications vetoed the second acquisition. Mr. Turner mortgaged his home and purchased it personally.

Channel 17 became the Superstation, TBS (Turner Broadcasting System), and the sizable profits from the sale of the Charlotte UHF station enabled Mr. Turner to launch CNN.

In another clever move, Mr. Turner purchased the Atlanta Braves baseball team in 1976 to ensure programming for TBS (and later broadened his sports franchises to include the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team).

As CNN became successful and expanded, Mr. Turner began to diversify his television properties. In 1986, TBS acquired the film and television library of MGM, which formed the programming base for TNT, launched in 1988. The 1992 launch of the Cartoon Network followed Mr. Turner’s acquisition of the rights and library of Hanna-Barbera Cartoons in 1991. Turner Broadcasting merged with New Line Cinema in 1994 and led to the creation of Turner Classic Movies.

Mr. Turner became Vice Chairman of Time Warner with the merger of Turner Broadcasting System and Time Warner in 1996. He served as Vice Chairman of AOL Time Warner from January 2001 to May 2003.

Mr. Turner had transformed his father’s billboard company into a media empire. Today, CNN’s reach extends to 15 cable and satellite television networks, six Web sites, two private place-based networks, two radio networks, wireless devices that provide news and information to mobile devices, and CNN Newsource, the world’s most extensively syndicated news service.


As CNN expanded globally, so did Mr. Turner. He established the Better World Society in 1985 to support the production of documentaries on environmental pollution, nuclear weapons and the population explosion. In an effort to end the cold war, Mr. Turner founded the Goodwill Games in 1985 to encourage athletic competition between the United States and the Soviet Union — an effort, like CNN, to contribute to world peace and communication.

In 1997, Mr. Turner pledged $1 billion, then a third of his wealth, to the United Nations for programs in the following areas: women and population, children’s health, the environment, and peace and security.

Mr. Turner’s other philanthropic endeavors include the Turner Foundation, established in 1990, to support environmental preservation and conservation, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, established in 2001.

Ted Turner, Award Recipient

In a speech before the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 2000, Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent who joined CNN in 1983, said that,

"We were thrilled and we were privileged to be part of a revolution, because make no mistake about it, Ted Turner changed the world with CNN. Not only did he create 24-hour news, and all that that has meant, but he truly created the global village. And as corny as that sounds, nothing has been the same since."

MLRC wishes to bestow the William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award on Ted Turner for his vision and his accomplishments. He has both hoped and ensured that his work would promote world understanding, peace and free speech.

photo: Mark Hill (TM) and ©2003 TBS, Inc. An AOL Time Warner Co.  All Rights Reserved.

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