On Ted Turner: From the early days of cable to a broadcasting powerhouse
Updated: Oct 7, 2020
Fellow cable pioneer Jim Faircloth reflects on his first meeting with Ted, and how CNN went from a mere idea to his legacy
I first met Ted Turner in January of 1976 at the Florida Cable Association’s winter conference. My company, Storer Communications, had carried Ted’s Atlanta independent WTCG in all of our Georgia cable systems for several years via a statewide microwave network. As the station became more and more popular throughout the Southeast, more cable operators were keen to find a way to carry the signal. The solution came when the first satellite earth stations were installed to carry Home Box Office.
While HBO was the anchor service that made the initial investment, $100,000 or more for the first 10-meter dishes worthwhile, operators quickly added more cable exclusive channels like WTCG, WGN from Chicago, the Madison Square Garden Network (later renamed USA Network) and a short-lived service called Satellite Programming Network (SPN).
By the middle of 1976, there were four 10-meter dishes in Florida, and MSO’s in other states were beginning to install five and seven meter dishes where those “smaller” receivers were deemed adequate to receive the signals. Ted’s dream of creating a 24-hour news channel was born with the knowledge that there was a path to nationwide distribution.
My first awareness of the full scope of what CNN would become was at a dinner with Ted at the Omni International Hotel on January 10, 1977, a full three years before the inaugural launch.
My calendar for the following day shows a meeting with friends at Cox Cable where no doubt this would have been a major topic of conversation.
Ted had purchased the Atlanta Braves in January of 1976. I was very fortunate during this period to be a frequent guest in the owner’s box at Braves home games in Atlanta and spring training games in Florida. As Vice President of Operations for Storer’s Eastern Region, I saw a lot of Ted, Terry McGuirk and other senior members of the Turner organization. Ted even hitched a ride at times on the Storer jet to attend satellite launches at our new build systems.
It was all quite natural then that I was invited to be one of the first signers of a CNN affiliate contract. The signing ceremony was to take place on September 9, 1979 at Atlanta’s Courtland Avenue Marriott during the Southern Cable Show. Ted had reserved a two room suite for the occasion with Cox Cable President Henry Harris scheduled to meet with Ted and CNN’s International Sales Representative Frank Beaty in one room while Terry McGuirk and legendary cable salesman Roy Mehlman were to witness my signing in the adjoining room. The appointed time was 1 p.m., but Henry Harris had still not arrived by 1:30.
Somehow, in the days before mobile phones, Henry was able to get word to his office to call Ted to say he had been delayed in traffic on I-285 and would be even later arriving. I learned this when Ted opened the door to the adjoining room and said, “Henry’s not coming; let Jimmy sign.” Some more colorful language preceded that quote but I will leave it there. The end result was that I had the honor of signing the first CNN affiliate agreement on behalf of Storer Communications.
When the next edition of Broadcasting Magazine arrived, I learned that Continental Cable CEO Amos Hostetter had verbally committed to launching CNN a few days earlier, though he did not attend the Southern Cable Convention. I do not know to this day if Amos attended the National Cable Show in Las Vegas in 1985. I assume he would have been there, but Ted invited me to his suite at the Las Vegas Hilton for a champagne toast and to cut the cake for CNN’s fifth anniversary. There may have been other cakes and other guests at later hours, but I do believe that my wife and I got the first slice.