Why Ted Turner is Cool

Ted Turner has, at least in the eyes of film fans, perhaps the worst reputation of any living person.  The commonplace idea that I hear from fans is that he is assured of a place in Film Purgatory for his colorization efforts and that he only really deserves praise for Turner Classic Movies, which was something he didn’t care about very much.

Bunk, I say.  Bunk.

Let me address a minor sticking point here: some of my dear readers may say that since I’d like to sell my pilot for Dr. Film to Turner Classic Movies, then I probably am giving a suspect opinion so that I can butter up a potential buyer.  Again, not so.  Ted is long gone from any active position at Turner Classic Movies, and I’ve been singing Ted’s praises for years, far before Dr. Film was even a gleam in my splicing block.

Ted may be the single greatest contributor to film preservation in the history of the 20th Century.   He’s certainly in the top 10.  Don’t believe me still?  Here’s why:

MGM has had a troubled history since the late 1950s; they had a big sale of their studio memorabilia as early as 1970 and they were bought and sold and bought and sold and bought and sold (I think that’s actually the right number.)  At a particularly low point in 1986, Ted bought MGM—the entire studio, films, buildings, everything… lock, stock, and barrel.  People said he was crazy.

That wasn’t the first time.  Turner bought a floundering TV station in 1970, renamed it WTCG.  It was still broadcasting in black and white, so he held a telethon to raise money to get color equipment.  He sold bumper stickers and sold ad time cheaply just to keep cash flowing.  People said he was crazy.

He was one of the first people to buy space on one of those giant, old-fashioned satellites.  These are the ones that used to litter the countryside at every hotel with a FREE HBO sign.  But Turner’s station was just up there for free, not some premium channel.  He generated his money from ads.  People said he was crazy.

Turner dreamed of having a media empire, and he had only a measly UHF TV station and a space on a satellite.  He renamed his station WTBS, nicknamed it the Super Station, and then set his sights on another goal.

He started another station, this time on satellite only, and called it CNN.  It was a 24-hour news channel.  Everyone said he was crazy.  There wasn’t enough news for a 24-hour cycle, they said, and tiny Atlanta, Georgia was too remote from the hubs of the universe (Los Angeles and New York) to get any decent news coverage.  I remember people making fun of him.

In the late 1980s, with CNN a success, Turner fought for squeezed space on the large satellites and got another station on the air: TNT.  He did every deal he could with as many carriers as he could to get it on the air.  People said he was crazy.

But I jump ahead of myself.  Remember I said that Turner wanted a media empire?  He dreamed of owning a movie studio and making his own movies.  In 1986, with MGM in the doldrums, having merged with United Artists, also in the doldrums, underwater with debt from films that failed to make money, Turner thought it might be a good chance to buy the studio.

It didn’t work out.  Many people claim that Turner was acting as a corporate raider, just cherry-picking the items he wanted from the studio, but I tend to believe that Turner hoped to maintain the studio as it had been.  For whatever reason, Turner and his investors sold off the studio and its assets one by one, except for one item: MGM’s film library.

In the mid-80s, with one station, and another planned, it made sense for Turner to have access to a large film library, and MGM had it: the entire Warners library pre-1948; the entire MGM library to 1986, and the entire RKO library.  All of this material was deemed worthless by most experts.  It had been played to death on local television over a period of 30 years.  There was no real home video market for any but a few titles.

Amazingly, Turner did what no one else would do.  He poured money into preservation.  New 35mm prints were made for distribution to theaters.  MGM’s restoration efforts, which had started years earlier, were stepped up and enhanced.  Turner entered the home video market, even the laserdisc market, which was just starting.  Anything that even had a chance of selling was issued.

When TNT (Turner Network Television) launched in 1988, Ted scheduled it full of films that hadn’t been seen in years.  They were all transferred from beautiful 35mm prints.  That lasted until he found he could make more money with newer material, so the movies got forced out.  Those were great days at TNT, though, because there were movies shown there that have rarely been screened since.  In the early days of the channel, everything was fair game.

There was a channel dedicated to older films at the time, and that was American Movie Classics (AMC).  They even had a long-term lease on the RKO package that eventually expired and reverted to Turner.  In those days, AMC was commercial-free, its fees paid by the cable companies who carried it.  Turner started Turner Classic Movies in 1994 following AMC’s model.  He also made sure that anyone picking up TCM had to pick up WTBS and TNT as well, guaranteeing that he’d have some extra income from the movies.

Ted felt that the best thing he could do was treat his investment with respect so that he could make as much money off it as he could.  I say more power to him.  Some people look at classic film as some supreme royal sacrifice, something that one does just for art’s sake.  Turner did it and made it pay.  And he made it pay the right way.  Restoration, video availability, cable showings, 35mm booking prints.

We only need look to the example set by Hallmark recently for the other end of the spectrum.  They purchased the Hal Roach back library, rather unenthusiastically, as a tax loss investment.  They were begged to release Laurel and Hardy films, maybe some Charley Chase titles.  SOMETHING.  Eventually, Turner Classic Movies got a package out of them.  Hallmark couldn’t be bothered to look through what they had.  They didn’t care, and the materials languished.  Thank heaven UCLA now has all of it and is giving it the care it deserves.  The problem is that this stuff could have made them money–maybe not a lot, but some.

OK, I avoided talking about colorization, but here goes.  I hate it, I’ve always hated it.  It looks fake.  Turner’s pushing it was obnoxious, and I didn’t like it.  I never saw a single picture that looked better with it, although I’d nominate the nasty color version of King Kong as the worst one.  That being said, it’s an interesting technical experiment.

I’ve always rather suspected that Turner never really wanted to change the world with colorization, but only to get some publicity with the idea.  After all, boring old movies never get any press, and he sure got it.  He ruffled feathers in the process, but that never bothered him.

Eventually, he even got a chance to make his own movies, and they’ve gotten a fair amount of respect.  Maybe he was right the whole time about needing a studio.

(As an aside: you want loyalty to friends?  Ted’s your man.  Anchorman Bill Tush [with a short u] started with Turner in the WTCG days.  He stayed as a news anchor until Ted gave him a weekly show in 1980, a groundbreaking original comedy.  When that didn’t gel, Tush got a cushy job at CNN that lasted for many years.  Ted takes care of his friends.)

Having accomplished what he set out to do–creating a media empire–Turner sold his stock to Time Warner and cashed out.  Turner, for all his flamboyant crazy behavior, seemed to run his stations more efficiently than the conglomerate does.  The crown jewel in the collection is probably still Turner Classic Movies, which showcases classic movies from most of the major studios.  I love the irony that Warner Brothers bought back their own, “worthless,” catalog of films when they bought Turner Broadcasting.  Who’s really crazy?

Turner strikes me as somewhat of a throwback to the brazen showman/marketer types like Merian C. Cooper in the 1930s.  Turner had a vision, and was going to pursue it.  He was loyal, but anyone who criticized him could be stepped on.  Quality was paramount.  Even if it was pro wrestling, he wanted it done well.

We could use a few more people like that.  Viva Ted.

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19 Responses to Why Ted Turner is Cool

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  3. Jim Reid says:

    Excellent article! I totally agree.

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  5. Ted Wilby says:

    I also agree and have said many of the same things. My feelings towards Colorization is this, if it gets them to restore the film, it’s fine with me. I can always just turn the color off.

    • drfilm says:

      The colorization was done at low-resolution on old videotape. They’re already outdated. The restorations were done on 35mm film and will be good for many years.

  6. mike schlesinger says:

    Very fine piece, but one correction: MGM did not own the RKO library. Turner purchased it separately a couple of years later. (Wikipedia has this wrong.) This is how I was able to get the theatrical rights to the library when I was at Paramount.

    • drfilm says:

      Nice to know this. I had always heard otherwise, but it explains why RKO’s library was in such a mess, and Turner fixed it up. I stand corrected. This really makes me respect what he did even more.

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  9. Gary Johnson says:

    He let Jane Fonda get away………there for, Ted is a schmuck.

    • drfilm says:

      I was trying not to get into Ted’s personal or political life. Jane is controversial enough that you’d likely find a lot of people who’d criticize him for ever marrying her in the first place.

  10. Excellent piece again, Dr. Film. Ted Turner is an interesting character–Merian C. Cooper a good analogy.

  11. Dick May says:

    I was VP-Film Preservation during the Turner Entertainment period, 1986-1996, and continued in this position after the merger with Warner Bros.
    I worked under Roger Mayer, who had been at MGM, and became President of Turner Entertainment after Ted’s purchase of the library.
    MGM had been exemplary in preservation, copying their nitrate films to safety starting in the 1960s. This continued after Turner’s takeover, without question of “what title”, or “is it worth it”. After taking over the RKO library, almost 300 of those films had never had safety copies made, and we took care of all of them.
    I had a couple of personal contacts with Ted, and his continuing interest in the library can be shown in a comment made to me: “Are you still preserving mah films?”.
    Working for his organization was an enjoyable 10 years.

    Dick May

    • drfilm says:

      I am well familiar with your work, Mr. May! MGM was really the first of the studios to get a preservation effort going, which is why you still have so many of your silent films extant, as opposed to studios like Universal that have a huge percentage of films missing in action. (And today Universal is doing wonderful work… it just took them years to get serious about preservation.)

      If it weren’t for people like Mr. May, we wouldn’t have prints of a lot of titles we have today. We all thank you for your efforts.

  12. Vincent says:

    Just used your entry as the basis for one of my own praising Turner — and examining his often-overlooked role in the pre-Code revival, right up there with Mick LaSalle and his fine books: http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/438472.html

    • drfilm says:

      Cool! For what it’s worth, I’m running a rare original Carole in 16mm here in Indianapolis next month, and another one in November. September is Made for Each Other, and for November, Universal was nice enough to let us license a showing of Love Before Breakfast, which I find to be a great picture. So there will be some nice big-screen Lombards coming up…

  13. Stacia says:

    All of this material was deemed worthless by most experts.

    It is astonishing anyone ever felt this way. For my part, I grew up during the years where old films weren’t on TV except as cable time fillers, but no one I knew had cable. In the early 1990s I suddenly discovered all those old films but with no idea that they had ever been on TV before. It was the late 1990s before I even HEARD of the packages sold to local TV stations with prints of really old films. That’s why it’s almost incomprehensible to me that so few people thought new generations would want to see the films. Even as late-night time filler, they should have had some value. Turner knew they had more value than that, and thank the gods he did.

  14. drfilm says:

    It used to be, in the waaaaay old days, that old films were thrown on TV all the time. Every station ran them; they were so common that we never thought we’d see the day that almost no broadcast station would run a movie. Most of these things had been run so often that they were considered worn out and worthless. Stations had 16mm prints that they had bought or leased from studios. They paid peanuts for them; the studios got very little money for a showing. This is why all the studios also thought home video for anything but the newest title was a joke.

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