R.E. "Ted" Turner III, 40, his status as Southern Folk Hero secure, his fortune estimated at $80 to $100 million, is home form the office. He parks the Toyta and bounds into the kitchen.
Good news awaits. Spread out to dry on the counter top is a heavy-knit white wool sweater with the word "Courageous" on the chest. It is wet, but clean.
"Wow!" Turner yells in his bullhorn voice. "This is great. Janie got the spots out." He tugs at the label (Britches of Georgetown), straightens the lay of the yarns. "This is my favorite sweater -- it's the one I won the America's Cup in, it's the one on the cover of Sports Illustrated." He again congratulates his wife. "... Janie -- you got the spots out!"
It is a sweater of destiny, all right: Every spot a story from that long, dramatic summer of 1977, the summer when the selection trials of the America's Cup yacht race caught the public eye, drawn by the presence of a brash, outrageously handsome contender from Georgia they called Terrible Ted, the Mouth of the South. A wise-guy millionaire from a billboard fortune, an establishment-baiter kicked off his own Atlanta Braves by the fulminating commissioner of baseball, a local TV and radio magnate swaggering among the scions of Larchmont, an over-eager, overbearing, over-sexed symbol of upstaging ambition let loose in Newport Harbor with an Errol Flynn mustache under the visor of a $2 railroad engineer's cap.
But he won the right to defend the Cup, and he blew away the Australian challenger 40, and when he returns to the 12-meter wars in 1980 it will be in the winner's sweater, with the stains of contention gone.
Meantime, Turner has bigger plans, for this business of winning must not stop. Victory past is on the kitchen counter, but victory future -- and the biggest damned fight of all -- is in the next room.
Topcoat still on, Turner strides into the tiny den of this large house in Atlanta Country Club Estates. The TV set is tuned to Channel 46. Ted Turner does not own Channel 46. He owns Channel 17.
"Arrrgghh!" he says, his powerful voice filling the room. "It's not on Channel 17. How come whenever I get home it's never on Channel 17?"
"How'm I going to get the entire nation to watch my super station if I can't even get my own family to watch it!" he thunders into the empty room. Back at the Station
"Good afternoon, the Super Station," the receptionist says each time into the phone. It is a word. Turner invented, and has trademarked.
The super station, in fact, is Channel 17 (WTCG), a somewhat plain two-story building under a 1,093-foot antenna on Peachtree Street Northwest. It looks at first glance like the fourth-ranked TV station in Atlanta, which it is: a typical, unaffiliated ultra-high-frequency channel specialiaing in local sports, movies, reruns and homegrown news.
Little Channel 17, however, was also the first TV station in the world to have its signal picked up by a satellite and passed on to cable systems, and when the satellite picked it up something very, very strange happened very, very quickly.
Channel 17 began to grow like Alice in Wonderland.
In 1976, before the satellite, the station was being watched in 460,000 cable homes, most of them in Georgia. By last May, 1.5 million families were tuning in, and since then the figure has been increasing at the rate of 100,000 cable households a month. Five million families will be wired in by 1980, according to Turner's staff. Channel 17 is already in 45 states, and among its cities are Annapolis, Honolulu, Arlington and Fairbanks.
Whatever else, it is part of a technological revolution. The proof is in the mail room, where Turner drops by whenever he can to read the postmarks.
"Lisen to this," he says, flipping through a pile of letters responding to TV ads for "Roy Clark Guitar Book" or "The Knitter." His clerks look up in awe and amusement: "Texarkana, Texas; Fort Ice, Arkansas; Pocatelo, Idaho; Hickory, North Carolina; Mercedes, Texas; Jackson, Mississippi; Modesto, California; Alamo, Texas; Natchez, Mississippi; Princeton, West Virginia; Lake Tahoe, Nevada; International Falls, Minnisota; Bristol, Tennessee; Crab Orchard, West Virginia; Paducah, Kentucky...."
"Huh?" he taunts. "And that's just a sample."
What has happened is right out of Horatio Alger by way of Buck Rogers. Rocketships carried communications satellites into the sky for the presumed use of the phone company and the big networks, but then the Federal Communications Commission, in December 1976 said little cable systems could use them too if they wanted to import distant signals like Channel 17's. The cable operators didn't have to ask the broadcaster -- and didn't have to pay him, either.
This decision struck confusion among broadcasters, networks and program suppliers alike, but it was what Turner had been waiting for.
Sidney Topol, president of Atlanta Scientific, recalls (with help from Turner: "Go on, Sid, tell him how I made you rich"):
"Ted walked in here one day in 1976 and said, 'Have you got an earth station?' I said, 'Sure Ted, we'll work up some proposals....' And he said 'I want one right now -- tomorrow.' And I said, 'Tomorrow?' But the next day we got a check."
What Turner bought was an earth-to-satellite transmitting station, so he could send his own signal up, and he created a corporation called Southern Satellite Systems to distribute it. But the FCC said, hey, SSS is a common carrier, you can't own that and the station too. So Turner gave Southern Satellite Systems to a friend. And he sold the earth station to RCA ("Made a couple hundred thousand, as a matter of fact"). There were plenty of other buttons to push.
He started spending $500,000 a year promoting the spread of Channel 17 to distant cable systems, set up a team of salesmen in New York, and bought the Atlanta Braves and the Atlanta Hawks, and TV rights to Flames hockey.
His station was already one of only a few stations offering programming 24 hours a day, and it was sending out 30 movies a week from a 2,700-film library he had quietly built up, along with reruns that now range from "Leave It to Beaver" to "All in the Family" to a recently purchased block of 174 hours of high class BBC and Time-Life programming. The sports teams were secure -- he owned them.
No wonder the sudden network flowered: Turner was exporting Atlanta like Holland exports tulips, with one big difference.
You have to pay for the tulips.
Ted Turner has a plan to make the super station pay, too, and it goes to the very heart of broadcasting marketing. He figures it will mean a gross of $189 million a year by 1989. The networks will be running scared by then, and Johnny-come-lately super stations will be left to gather the scraps left in his carnivorous path to glory.
Since Turner owns 87 percent of Turner Communications Group (3.4 million shares now valued at about$30 a share), he will be richer. But the glory will be richer still. Winning
A history buff, Turner admires Alexander the Great -- up to the point where that young warrior ran out of new worlds to conquer. Turner's specialty is inventing new worlds as required by his obsession to win, new opportunities to outwit the spectre of Failure that made its haunting appearance early in his life. He was just 24 when his father, Edward Turner, methodically put the affairs of his billboard business in order, then shot himself. Ted fought to gain control of the billboards, and of his fortune.
"I remember we went gunning together some years ago, over on the Eastern Shore," recalls Arnie Gay, the Annapolis yacht yard owner who won the Bermuda Race last year.
"Ted said to me, 'Arnie, I'm going broke. Will you give me a job?'"
"I said, 'Sure, Ted, any time.'"
"Will it pay enough to support my family?" Turner asked him, and Gay said he thought that it would.
"Then Ted looked me right in the eye," Gay said, "and this funny expression came over his face, and all of a sudden he said, 'Arnie -- you've restored my faith in myself.'"
"Yeah," Turner remembered, "that was back after I first bought the station, in 1970. I can't tell you what it was like for me. I was being tossed back and forth, and I hated it. I was determined to survive. It was like being caught in a storm off Cape Hatteras, with a lee shore coming closer all the time."
But Turner, by programming his station personally "and never making the same mistake twice," quickly put it into the black.
Then came the 1974 America's Cup trials. Australia was the challenger that year, and as always the elimination series was arranged to assure the best defense of a trophy that the United States has never lost in 143 years. Turner and his syndicate had a new 12-meter sloop built, a radical design with radical results: It was slow. Turner just couldn't win with it, and day by day his stock fell in the eyes of the syndicate.
In the end he was replaced as skipper -- a humiliating blow, since everyone in Newport knew the boat was a dog -- and relegated to the helm of a practice yacht. His replacement did no better, and Ted Hood, sailing Courageous, was selected to defend, and won.
Ted Turner conquered that would three years later, springing full-grown upon it as Captain Outrageous, the publicity-stunting baseball owner suddenly claiming rights to the world series of yachting.
He astounded the town with his unpredicted victories on the race course, his inevitable effect on sun-tanned womanhood, his determination to draw crowds, and by an unparalleled feud with San Diego sailmaker and rival skipper Lowell North, who declined to sell him sails for the races. Turner says North promised. North says his syndicate overruled him. To this day Turner has not forgotten his war with the "laidback" Norht -- and "laid-back," he will have you understand, is term of derision.
In Atlanta, he cavorted around the bases with his Ballgirls, zaftig broom-handlers who sweep bases of dust; instituted marriage ceremonies at home plate, and challeneged Tug McGraw to a roll-the-baseball-around-the-bases-with your-nose contest, which Turner suffered a bloody face to win.
He set up shop on his own sidelines, surrounded by family and celebrities, feet on the roof of the Braves dugout. The scene is now familiar all over the country, thanks to Channel 17: Ted rooting the last-place Braves on, equipped with a small TV set, a portable radio, a microphone should he wish to address the crowd, a package of Red Man chewing tobacco, a beer cup, and a second cup into which to the delight of the Atlanta fans, he periodically expectorates.
When the team had lost 16 in a row in 1977, Turner tried to put on a uniform and yell at the umpires more officially, as manager. He had already been suspended by Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for alleged violations of player-hiring practices, and was fighting it in court. Shortly after the pyrotechnics of his managing debut, the judge upheld Kuhn's right to boot an owner off his own team. "I was just trying to have a little fun -- after all, I paid $10 million for the team, didn't I?," Turner says, seemingly confounded by the fuss. But it didn't help his case when he threatened to deliver one of Kuhn's lawyers a knuckle sandwich.
Turner, they said, would do anything to win. And after he won, he would still do anything.
"I know, I know, I've heard it all," says Gary Jobson, the hot young skipper who was Turner's tactics adviser on Courageous, and whom sailors accord a big share of the glory.
Few people claim to know Ted Turner well, but Jobson had to -- winning depended on it.
"All I can say is we were together for 100 days, and we had four arguments during that time.Anybody who knows the tensions of sailboat racing knows that must be a record."
Jobson also saw the public side, the churlish side -- and thought he saw his helmsman cheat at croquet. ("That's not true." Turner says. "Gary sorry he ever said that.") And when the papers started writing up Jobson's contribution, Turner started knocking it down.
"Toward the end he did play mind games," Jobson said. But Jobson still believes. In fact, he has written a book with Turner, a how-to-win manual called "The Racers Edge" due out in April. ("I hear you've written a book," Turner was asked. "Naw," he said magnanimously. "Gary wrote it.")
"If I tell you something about Turner, will you promise not to laugh?" said Jobson to a visitor in his Annapolis town-house.
"The Atlanta Braves are going to win the World's Series within four years."
"Hey!" Jobson said sharply, looming to his full 6 feet several inches. "I told you not to laugh." Making More Millions
The view from the Stadium Club at Fulton County Stadium projects out onto a muddy, ruined field, shortly to be ruined further by the motorcycle races of the baseball off-season. Ted Turner owns the restaurant, too; it came with the franchise. At a table are three Turner men: Don Andersson, a cable expert hired away from his job in Washington; Robert Sieber, marketing director, bought away from Cox Broadcasting, and Don Lachowski ("Say Lahusky"), sales vice president. Lachowski is explaining how the super station will make money.
The plan is simple: Now that the former small-time UHF station is a big-audience super station, it will charge super-station ad rates. This is the marketing revolution that Turner has scheduled to follow the technological revolution.
Twety-tow days after a rate increase that brought WTCG's rate to within 30 percent of the network cost per thousand, Lachowski is facing the facts.
"Right now, we have achieved very little towards our goal. But the first quarter is always slow.
"Remember, we're creating a new market here where there wasn't one before. We're paving the highway, and then other super stations will tool right in on it. We're like Lewis and Clark, and when the others see that we make it to the Pacific without getting killed, they'll follow."
At the moment, Lachowski's sales team has signed up 22 advertisers at super station rates, among them Miller, Mobil, Goodyear, Canon cameras, American Can, Nestles, Hines and the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Wherever Channel 17 comes down, these products are likely to be for sale. But Channel 17's market has always been local. Why should a local advertiser care about reaching the West Coast?
That was the very question asked by Delta Airlines when it pulled its ads after the rate increase.
"We have a retail approach and a localized message," says Lee Sport, Delta advertising manager. "But we want to continue our association with the Braves, and we have left the door open to any local-type buy."
Translation to concept: Delta doesn't want a super station, just plain old Channel 17.
Translation to nitty-gritty:
"I might add that the cost would go up substantially, since the minimum buy went from 1 minute to 3 minutes. Our bill would go from $100,000 to $540,000."
Within weeks, however, Eastern Airlines had picked up Braves sponsorship -- having found Channel 17 amenable to its offer of $270,000 per 1 1/2 commercial minutes.
In a nutshell, what the pioneer super station has to do to succeed is convince advertisers that its audience is a valuable one, not just a far-flung satellite connection of small cable systems. It also has to bust into the big-time, New York-oriented agency world. Turner has a sales team in New York, too, knocking on doors.
"Right now we just don't fit," says Lachowski. "When you're talking to an ad agency, it's as if there're two doors, one marked 'spot advertising' and the other marked network.'
"If we go in the spot door, they say, 'Your prices are too high.' If we go in the network door, they say, 'If you don't have the potential to reach 80 or 85 percent of the TV audience, you're not a network.'
"What we're trying to do is use a chainsaw to cut ourselves a new door."
Ted Turner is the chainsaw. Earlier this day he has gathered his troops in the control room of the station to view a new tape devised to convince laggard advertisers that a new day is dawning.
Turner lights a Cuban cigar and drops into the control chair, looking for the moment not unlike Captain Kirk of the Enterprise about to advise a curiously slow-witted alien culture to see it his way -- or else.
One of the 23 TV screens springs to life, flashing a Superstation logo while the United States of America, seen from the vantage of an RCA SATCOM I satellite 22,000 miles overhead, unrolls beneath.
Tiny lights wink seductively all across the nation, every wink a Superstation audience seeming to beckon. The pitch makes it clear: A new medium has been given birth, and Ted Turner is the father. The entire 4 1/2-minute Walter Cronkite report on Turner of Dec. 26, 1978, is included, proof that he has been noticed by the official Voice of Outer Space.
When Turner himself appears on screen his head is rocked back and his spurs are jangling and he is telling folks, in that cocky voice, hwo to get as rich as he is.
"Strong," he says when the tape concludes, "real strong." And the chainsaw smiles, showing its teeth. Another Turner
Though it is the public Turner dubbed folk hero by both adoring and abhoring press, a private Turner emerges immediately the crowd disappears. Jobson encountered it on their long, discursive walks through the streets of Newport. "Or just drive with him someplace in a car, you'll see what I mean."
The one-on-one Turner is a dizzying mixture of fierce pride, non-stop high-decibel speechmaking, philosophical gloom, nightmarish evocations of a ruined earth populated by homo sapiens gone to seed, utter candor, and a sense of personal destiny that is virtually overwhelming.
The destiny is easy to recognize, and he makes no attempt to hide it: He will remake the world of commercial television, dominate international yachting, and simultaneously maintain a 19th-century southern agrarian homelife to which he can return periodically for sustenance.
His thoughts return constantly to his plantation, to his five children, Rhett, Beauregard, R.E. IV, Laura Lee and Sarah Jean (Sarah Jean was to be Scarlett, but Turner's wife put her foot down), to the possibility of becoming agriculturally self-sufficient there. He proudly shows photos of the white plantation house, and if the viewer hesitates to not note the connection with "Gone With the Wind," Turner points it out himself.
He is capable at any moment of a platitude or a parable, delivered oftentimes with the force of a call to arms. There is also a child-like curiosity ("I've been trying to broaden myself, lately") tht runs like a hidden stream under his bravura monologue.
In a car, on a walk, in the privacy of his home, his charm is of a different sort: that of a millionaire who knows the price of toothpicks; whose reaction against Dick Cavett's supercilious interview style was so extreme that the show was never aired; who preferred military school in Chattanooga to Brown University; whose favorite TV show is "Sanford and Son" but who considers "The Newlywed Game" to be "revolting garbage"; and who, when the chips are down, is really not quite sure who Steve Martin is.
"If you're looking for a one-work explanation of me, it's the name of my boat -- "Tenacious.' I'm an extremely tenacious guy.
"I want to win, and I'm going to win. I don't know when it will be in baseball, maybe the year 2001, but maybe in just a couple of years. The losers get discouraged, but the winners just grit their teeth. And when I do win, I'll stand on top of Fulton County Stadium and shout it so they'll hear me in Alaska.
"I was brought up with very strict family and military schools, and they both stressed a very, very strong work ethic. You have to produce to get anyplace, there's no short cut. You have to be proud, to not want to put your hat over your face. That's how you can tell crime doesn't pay. You try to take some guy's picture at the courthouse and he puts his hat over his face, you know he's not happy with his life.
"The world is getting soft, and I worry about it. These criminals who break into your house -- they came into mine, and you know what they took? They took my best-dressed medal from military school. They took my cufflinks, and stuff that belonged to my grandfather, and my father, and damn it they took my sword from school -- it only cost $26 but it had my name on it, and I worked hard for it.
"People think they got things coming to them, but I never did. Hey, when I was a kid I tried to do a lot of things -- football, basketball, baseball, even swimming -- and I just wasn't good at them. But I could sail, so I worked hard at that because it was something I could do. And I never won anything big until I was 27.
"My plantation is 5,232 acres, and I'm putting in 1,200 fruit trees, a beautiful tree garden. I think about it all the time.I've got to just go there and relax, and jut think. I can solve all these problems, I just have to think. I love it when there are problems to solve.
"One problem is that lately I've been finding dead deer. They tell me the land can't support the herd, it's too big. Natural selection is all shot to hell. I'm going to have to kill some dear, and I hate killing things. What I need is a cougar.
"I figure a cougar would eat a deer a week, and so I looked into it. But they told me I'd have to fence the whole place if I had a cougar. What the world needs is more cougars, maybe even in downtown Atlanta.
"People think everything comes automatically. When I bought the Braves, the manager was Eddie Robinson -- he's a great old guy, running the Texas Rangers now -- and he had a Cadillac leased by the team. I said, 'Robinson, this team lost a million dollars last year, and you're driving a Cadillac, and flying first-class, and staying in suites when you get there. I mean, do you think you deserve it?'
"And Robinson said to me, 'Turner, do you know what it means to be in the big leagues? It means Cadillacs, and first-class, and suites.'
"I said, 'Gee. I've been to dinner with princes and kings, and at the New York Yacht Club, and I hang around with the biggest corporation executives, and I always thought I was in the big leagues. And I drive a Toyota.'
"I go all the time, I don't let up. And I've got to tell you that lately I've been having a problem with exhaustion. Physical, not mental. Doing everything yourself wears you down. Everything gets on you, the sailing, programming my own station 24 hours a day, stuff nobody else does. The mere fact of meeting hundreds of new people all the time wears you down.
"But you have to make a contribution, you don't wnat to be a sponge on humanity. That's why I don't sell out and go to the Riviera and be a sponge. You want to make people happy, like with my TV station, or like with my happy billboards, when I had nothing else.
"I really feel that people have got to shape up or ship out. This is a beautiful planet and we're wrecking it, and we're running out of oil, and without oil you can't lubricate my farm machinery, and you don't have fertilizer for the fields, and the land can't produce as much. People are going to starve, I'm telling you.
"I'm going to be self-sufficient down on the plantation -- grow all my own stuff, and I won't have to go to anybody when the world falls apart and the dollar won't buy anything anymore. But you know, then there'll be a revolution, and they'll come and take it away from me.
"I've decided what my message is. Work to exploit your full potential. I'm up to 90 percent.
"No, make that 50 percent."
"Hey!" Turner says suddenly, snapping himself out of a future in which the jungle has grown over his grave, and which he has probed non-stop for 30 minutes. I'll bet you never met a millionaire who thought about stuff like that, huh?" Perchance to Dream
It is 7:30 in Ted Turner's house and the TV set is now on Channel 17. The millionaire sportsman and media revolutionary, Gucci loafers off, vodka and tonic in hand, reclines under an array of several hundred sterling silver trophies to await his favorite television show.
In a moment, "Sanford and Son" appears on the screen, and he is engrossed. He suffers interruptions only from his 10-year-old daughter, who flirtatiously reminds him of her impending birthday and offers price and value comparisons of three most favored presents. Like sons Rhett and Beauregard, also home this evening, she makes sure to answer "sir" when addressed. Janie Turner quietly serves dinner on the coffee table: homemade seafood croquets and a casserole, with white wine rendered in silver goblets engraved "Y-Flyer National Champion."
But it has been a long day, and by 9:10, as the Atlanta Flames madly chase a hockey puck back and forth across the screen, he is falling asleep. The super station wars, and the battles of the winter Gulf Stream soon to be joined in Florida's Southern Ocean Racing Circuit, will be taken up again tomorrow.
But the foghorn voice isn't gone quite yet as he rises from the couch.
"You've got to admit," Turner says with a sense of wonderment, as if talking about someone else. "I'm a fascinating guy. Tell the truth -- wouldn't you like to be Ted Turner?"
He doesn't wait for an answer.
"But remember -- it's not as easy as it looks."