The image is burned into my memory. I'll always remember Ted Turner as a cowboy crooner.
Nearly 20 years ago, when I was a high school student working part-time as a sports announcer for a local cable channel in Huntsville, Ala., Turner's larger-than-life presence towered over the lobby outside of our studio. The giant cardboard poster, created by the Turner Broadcasting promotion department, featured a grinning Ted dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a western shirt, strumming a guitar. It was captioned, "I was cable when cable wasn't cool," an obvious rip-off of a popular country song.
The clever gag succeeded in reminding cable operators, at a time of mounting competition, how Turner had blazed a trail through the virgin wilderness. It was also a snapshot of Turner in a more profound sense: His flamboyance. His hubris. His ability to mock himself and not worry about looking like a fool.
In those simpler days, before Atlanta started taking itself so seriously, Ted Turner was like a poster child for the city's unreconstructed soul. To the outside world he was the face of Atlanta' untrammeled ambition, the often outrageous entrepreneur who gambled big on the prescience of his unconventional ideas and sometimes even bigger on the words he allowed to escape from his mouth, unfiltered by thoughts of political correctness, caution or even good sense.
It all crystallized in a moment that changed Atlanta forever.
In the years after his 1970 purchase of WJRJ-TV Channel 17 - which he renamed WTCG - Turner slowly reversed the struggling independent station's fortunes with an odd mix of ancient black-and-white sitcoms, classic movies and sports. In fact, he brought the Braves and the Hawks primarily to provide attractive programming for his station. Then there was Bill Tush. Even though Channel 17 was the quintessential alternative television station, it was bound by the same federal public service guidelines as every other channel in America, so Turner installed the wacky Tush as the anchor of an often bizarre, always entertaining overnight newscast. On at least one memorable occasion, Tush dressed a German shepherd in a coat and tie and stood off camera reading the news while the dog licked his chops. Tush had fed the dog peanut butter so it would look like he was talking. Other times during those days when the Braves took up permanent residence in the basement of the National League's Western Division, he delivered the baseball scores wearing a paper bag.
It was popular in those days to think of Turner - if you thought of him at all - as P.T. Barnum with a Southern accent. But he was much more complicated than that. He was a genius on a collision course with his moment.
After reading that HBO, Time Inc.'s fledgling pay movie service, had started transmitting to a small number of cable systems via satellite, Turner devised a radical scheme to turn his lowly Atlanta independent station into his own national network. It was a revolutionary notion. At the time, cable was nothing more than a slightly better alternative to rabbit ears.
The obstacles were numerous: He had to convince one of the telecommunications giants to rent him space on one of their satellites, which were protected like keys to the Pentagon. He had to convince a hardware provider to sell him an uplink facility - which was needed to transmit Channel 17's signal into outer space - at the prevailing rate of $750,000, and most of them turned him down because they didn't think he qualified to own one. He had to convince hundreds of cable operators from coast to coast that it was in their long-term interest to invest as much as $100,000 to purchase an earth station so they could receive Turner's channel and all the others to follow. He had to gamble that the three broadcast networks - who monopolized American television - and the Federal Communications Commission - which had licensed Channel 17 only as a local station - wouldn't catch on to what he was doing and stop him cold.
Finally, on Dec. 17, 1976, after nearly a year of working the problem, someone flipped a switch in Turner's dilapidated headquarters on West Peachtree Street, and in the blink of an eye, the signal was microwaved to the uplink facility in a wooded area near Douglasville. From there, the picture was transmitted to a satellite orbiting the earth, which re-transmitted the images to a small number of earth stations that had been purchased by cable systems with visionary owners. Few people noticed or cared, but that was cable's big bang.
The birth of Superstation WTBS - as Turner, ever hyperbolic, billed his new venture - launched the basic cable industry. It was, as the electronics people say, the "killer application" that made cable systems want to invest in expensive earth stations and, in turn, convinced viewers to plunk down their hard-earned money for cable, which created the demand for the dozens of channels that now vie for our attention. Just as the makers of Excel and every other software package will forever be indebted to the long-forgotten spreadsheet program VisiCalc, which gave people a whole new reason to buy a personal computer, every cable network from ESPN to The Weather Channel owes its very existence to Ted Turner.
Turner made television part of Atlanta's identity. As the city joined New York and Los Angeles as a major center for television programming, his burgeoning empire affected the way the world saw us - and how we saw ourselves. In the early days, this was reflected in the chest-thumping promotion of the cellar-dwelling Braves as "America's Team" and the edgy humor of Tush, the sketch comedy show hosted by the erstwhile newsman. Later, the success of CNN gave the city a certain gravitas. Suddenly, the world was watching itself through our eyes. The Superstation and its siblings bought Atlanta a certain pop culture cachet, defining the city in the nation's consciousness as Coca-Cola and Delta never will. The 1996 Olympics was a transcendent moment, but it was the stunning technological and journalistic achievements of CNN that made Atlanta relevant as an international city.
Like many great entrepreneurial endeavors, Turner Broadcasting eventually became part of the establishment, and its success bred caution and conformity. It's just another cog in the massive machine of AOL Time Warner now.
When I called Turner Broadcasting in an attempt to find one of those vintage posters of the founder, a spokesman politely told me that Ted didn't like to be associated with that kind of image anymore. Which is precisely the point. The Ted we once knew is mostly a memory now, like Ponce de Leon Park.
Copyright 2001 by Keith Dunnavant