How Ted Turner's Vision For CNN Sparked The 24-Hour News Cycle

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By Lisa Napoli
By Lisa Napoli

The launch of CNN by the eccentric and sometimes outrageous Ted Turner ushered in a new era of nonstop news.

The network started in 1980 and quickly showed its value in covering news events as they were happening. Four decades later, journalist and author Lisa Napoli takes a deep dive into the history of the first 24-hour news network in her new book, "Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News."

In his launch speech in June 1980 at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters, Turner shared his vision for the network. He said he hoped that CNN’s national and international coverage would “bring together in brotherhood and kindness and friendship and in peace the people of this nation and this world.”

Turner began his career as a billboard salesman after he inherited the company from his father. He then branched out from billboards into television, acquiring WTCG in Atlanta, which wasn’t a news station at all, Napoli says.

In fact, Turner didn’t want to do news, but the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] required that television stations do a certain amount of public service broadcasting news, she says. His idea was to put the news on at night where it would “get lost in the shuffle” and make it a “jokey” news program, starring broadcaster Bill Tush.

“But what they didn't bargain for is that there were tons of insomniacs,” Napoli says. “And what they really didn't bargain for was that when they went up on cable and then up on the satellite and they could be seen at different time zones all around the country, lots of people were watching at all hours.”

The overnight news programming was a big hit, and that was where the idea of CNN was born, she says.

“Ted saw the power of television. He saw the power of cable television and cable television delivered via satellite,” she says. “That seeded the idea, what could he do next? And that was where he fell into news.”

Interview Highlights 

On why CNN was able to differentiate itself from other broadcast networks

“At the very beginning, the idea that news was coming in from all over and that CNN was creating something that seems so obvious right now, which was a network of affiliates all around the country that fed news into them. Of course, the traditional broadcast networks were doing that. They were grabbing stories as things happened around the country. But CNN, that was their mainstay, was this network that they created of stations. Just the idea of a diversity of opinions would change everything.”

On Turner as a businessman 

“He was a risk-taker. And that was probably, if you think a good business person is somebody who takes risks, that's Ted Turner for sure, in that he also made a lot of decisions without money. I mean, for instance, launching CNN, the networks had thought about doing 24-hour news, but they didn't have the money or the wherewithal. And he didn't really care. He did it anyway. And famously he wound up losing control of his empire because he took many risks, but he just didn't take no for an answer. In fact, if somebody said no, he would do it anyway, whether or not he had the money — like when he first got into television.”

On the legacy of CNN and 24-hour news 

“Twenty-four-hour news was going to happen. Somebody was going to figure out that they needed to do this. Ted Turner and the people he employed and amassed did it first, and it's changed news forever. And of course, all of that was before the internet came and escalated it to the next level.

“So the conversation about how it's changed, how news is delivered, I think about it every single day during the pandemic. What if I could just turn on the news at 6 o'clock and hear a very sober, measured, deliberate newscast that told me what happened that day? How would that change how everybody was relating to this pandemic? We'll never know because you can't dial back the time. But what I loved about writing this book as somebody who spent her career in the media is that it makes you think about the fact that there was a time not very long ago when news wasn't instantly available. So it's not passing a judgment, and it's not a Fox versus CNN versus MSNBC thing. It really is the birth of 24-hour news and what was going on in our world at that moment in time that allowed it to happen.”

On Turner’s purchase of the CNN logo for $5,000

“It's a great American business story. Basically, he commissioned the logo. Poor Reese Schonfeld, the president, was scrambling around trying to get out of his last job and behind his back, Ted commissioned this logo. … It's two cables braided together, so talk about outdated. And that's another interesting part of this story, because all of the people who came to CNN in the early days were fighting the phone company because the phone company was basically the carrier of all information, not just calls. Ironically, the phone company now owns CNN, AT&T.”

On where Turner is now

“He has come out publicly and said that he has a form of dementia called Lewy Body. His family is active with his environmental philanthropies and his environmental work. And his staff were very helpful and gracious to me as I looked for archival information because a lot of it wasn't easy to find, and this is an unauthorized book. CNN didn't commission it or sanction it, so there were certain videotapes and recordings that I was looking for that his office was helpful to me with.”

On if Turner’s influence is still felt at CNN

“Unfortunately, I think if you talk to a lot of the CNN originals, they would say no. I think that another reason I wrote this book is hopefully people will remember this pioneer and the people who worked with him and reflect on the contributions that they made in making it possible. But yes, if you look at the first hours of CNN or if you remember them, it's nothing like what you see today. Part of that is because the computer graphics are a lot different, and the whole ethos is completely different.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: 'Up All Night'

By Lisa Napoli

March 2001

His handsome face tired, his silver hair and mustache now fully white— his speech as bombastic as when reporters first anointed him the “Mouth of the South,” a nickname he despised—Ted Turner grabbed the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism as he ascended the stage at the Forum of Public Affairs at Harvard University.

Lisa Napoli (Photo by Preston Wiles)
Lisa Napoli (Photo by Preston Wiles)

He found the honor amusing. Before him, it had been bestowed on luminary broadcast journalists like Ted Koppel, Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters, and Lesley Stahl—venerable practitioners whose networks Ted had charged after with nuclear force, changing the very nature of TV. Though he’d never reported a story in his life—though he’d long ago derided news as “evil”—he supposed he had been a journalist of sorts. After all, he still drew a paycheck from a media company, Time Warner, which had acquired his Turner Broadcasting years earlier, including the service for which he was being feted that night—CNN, a source of news to two billion people around the globe. Heck, way back in grade school, he’d hawked newspapers at a streetcar stop for a penny a pop. Didn’t that count as journalism?

Even as a kid, he’d been a salesman above all else, shouting, “EXTRA!” to the passersby to suggest that the latest issue promised big, breaking news.

“It wasn’t an extra,” he confessed to the audience, who lapped up his irreverence, “but I was trying to sell these goddamned papers.”

After a few too many drinks at the pre-event dinner party, he propped up the framed commendation on the seat of a chair next to the podium. The citation proceeded to fall to the floor. He left it there.

“It won’t stand up,” he said, “and I’m having trouble doing the same myself.”

As much as the cocktails, the dismal facts of life since the dawn of the new millennium had knocked him off-kilter.

When clocks ticked into the year 2000, the world had not imploded, as many had expected it might, but Ted’s universe had. Days into the new year, his third wife, the actress Jane Fonda, had moved out. He’d honored her wish that he not run for president of the United States, a job he wanted if only to promote his passion for environmental preservation. Fonda had said she’d leave him if he ran, so he didn’t—she went ahead and split anyway. He loved her still.

“The best lay I ever had,” he’d lamented to the dean’s wife earlier that evening—the ultimate compliment by this inveterate ladies’ man.

Just a few days after that personal loss, a different life-altering bombshell exploded, this one dropped by Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin. Levin had altered the course of Ted’s life before. In 1975, he’d sparked a media revolution when he catapulted a

faltering pay-cable service called HBO into space—then a brand-new frontier. When Ted learned about this pioneering use of a satellite to transmit a television signal, he was inspired to make the copycat move for his little independent station in Atlanta. This changed everything for him, and for the station, and, ultimately, for all of television.

Swept up in this new century by the “irrational exuberance” of the World Wide Web, Levin, now Ted’s boss, had negotiated the sale of their company to a preposterous suitor, the red-hot America Online. Ted had his doubts, but he no longer had any say. Wall Street so disapproved of this merger that Time Warner’s stock tanked. In the past months alone, his personal fortune had shrunk by $3 billion.

Just a week earlier, he’d suffered another incalculable loss—of power. He’d been shunted aside into an emeritus role. The networks he’d created, including CNN, would no longer fall under his control.

Absent his job, his wife, or a healthy slice of his fortune, now he had to stand tall here in Cambridge at the august university that had, decades earlier, rejected his application for admission.*

“If I had come to college here, God knows what I would have accomplished,” he mused, as the audience erupted in laughter. Because, aside from the recent tumult, no one could argue that his achievements had been anything but formidable.

In introducing Ted, his Harvard host extolled him as a “visionary” in the spirit of the savior of the venerable New York Times, Adolph Ochs, or, better yet, Elvis. Elvis Presley changed music. But Ted had done one better. He’d changed America.

Yet few in that audience remembered—if they ever knew at all— the improbable empire-building that had emboldened Ted to believe he could start the very first all-news channel in 1980. Hardly anyone thought the idea could work, much less last—much less that a rogue like him could pull it off. Then, there was the parade of obstacles that had threatened to derail him every step of the way.

That evening, the audience at Harvard wasn’t concerned with history, especially history they didn’t even know. They were worried about CNN’s future and what would become of the news network they relied on now that Ted would no longer be a part of it. Layoffs had just been announced, and the accelerating power of the Internet loomed large. How would that change CNN? a student asked. It already had, Ted responded, his voice tinged with regret. But, he added, he had no crystal ball. All he could do was hope for the best.

Before the digital revolution unleashed a never-ending tsunami of information; back before videotape and portable camera gear and time-code editing and live shots allowed television news to rev more quickly and vividly than ever; way back when the world was a slower, quieter place and television’s crackling black-and-white glow began to muscle radio for mindshare, Ted had been a little boy with a ferocious disciplinary problem about to be shipped off to military school, selling newspapers to commuters on their way home from work—fretting, as he voraciously memorized the stories of kings and battles and explorers, that there were no new worlds left for him to conquer. It was as if the medium of television was waiting for him to come along to upend it.

“I was like Columbus when he left Spain for the new world,” Ted told the amused audience, wistful for that strange and wonderful and faraway moment in time. “He didn’t know where he was going when he started, he didn’t know where he was when he got there, and he didn’t know where he’d been when he got back.”

*After his rejection from Harvard, Ted attended Brown, a school to which he reminded the audience he’d just gifted $100 million—the same sum he’d given Jane Fonda after she’d left. She turned around and pledged $12.5 million of that to fund a gender studies program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. (The award was later rescinded for various reasons, most notably the collapse of the stock.) “Goddamn it,” Ted groused. “I want you to know it’s my money. I love her still.”

Excerpted from: Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News, by Lisa Napoli © Abrams Press, 2020

This segment aired on May 12, 2020.


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