On this day in 1980, upstart media mogul Ted Turner launches CNN, the world’s first 24-hour news network; journalism, politics, circadian rhythms and planet earth would never be the same. The Cable News Network signed on at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time, and after an introduction by Ted Turner, the husband and wife team of David Walker and Lois Hart anchored the channel’s first newscast, immediately reporting a lead story on the attempted assassination of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan.
The network was the brainchild of one Robert “Ted” Turner, a flamboyant and outspoken businessman dubbed the “Mouth of the South.” Born November 19, 1938, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Turner and his family moved to Georgia, where his father built and ran a successful billboard advertising company. Turner’s father suffered bipolar disorder and took his own life in 1963. Heredity being unforgiving, Turner is said to have suffered the same challenges, and was known to endure bouts of depression throughout his adult life. He was treated with lithium pills at turns, beginning when he caught his father with a doctor’s wife in flagrante delicto.
After his father’s death, Turner took over the business and expanded it. In 1970, he bought a failing Atlanta TV station that broadcast old movies and network reruns and within a few years Turner transformed it into a “superstation,” a concept he pioneered, in which the station was beamed by satellite into homes across the country. Turner later bought the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Atlanta Hawks basketball team, airing their games on his network TBS (Turner Broadcasting System). In 1977, Turner gained greater international fame sailing his yacht to victory in the prestigious America’s Cup race.
Post-launch, CNN initially lost money and was ridiculed as the Chicken Noodle Network. However, Turner continued to reinvest in growth and development of the network’s news bureaus around the world. In 1983, he bought Satellite News Channel, snookering part-owner ABC, and thereby eliminating CNN’s main competitor. CNN eventually came to be known for covering live events around the world as they happened, often scooping the major networks and running the line out ad nauseam on breaking stories big and small.
In addition to CNN and his sports franchises, Turner has acquired or launched various ventures and properties including Brut cologne, MGM/UA (purchased from and sold back to Kirk Kerkorian), Turner Entertainment, World Championship Wrestling, Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, Turner Foundation, Moscow Independent Broadcasting Network and the Time-Warner merger. Unlike another out-sized magnate currently in the news, most of Turner’s productions have been wildly successful. Even former spouse Jane Fonda still refers to Turner as her “favorite ex-husband” and he attended her 80th birthday celebration as an honored guest.
Politically, Turner is staunchly pro-environment, pro-universal health care and anti-nuclear proliferation, and has been known to make frank and controversial remarks. Turner once called observers of Ash Wednesday “Jesus freaks,” and dubbed opponents of abortion “bozos.” In 2002, Turner accused Israel of terror, stating “The Palestinians are fighting with human suicide bombers, that’s all they have. The Israelis … they’ve got one of the most powerful military machines in the world. The Palestinians have nothing. So who are the terrorists?”
Notwithstanding such a curious and quixotic portrait, Turner’s legacy will forever remain intact. CNN is available in over 100 million U.S. households, and broadcast coverage of the U.S. channel extends to over 890,000 American hotel rooms, as well as carriage on cable and satellite providers throughout Canada. As of September 2018, CNN has 90.1 million television households as subscribers, or 97.7% of households with cable in the U.S. In 2019, CNN ranked third in viewership among cable news networks, behind rivals Fox News and MSNBC, averaging 972,000 regular viewers. CNN ranks 14th among all basic cable networks; globally, CNN programming airs through CNN International, which can be seen by viewers in over 212 countries and territories.
Opining on his principal achievement, Turner said “We won’t be signing off until the world ends. We’ll be on, and we will cover the end of the world, live, and that will be our last event… we’ll play Nearer, My God, to Thee before we sign off.”