Arts & Culture

The Legacy of Ted Turner’s Superstation

One man and a crazy broadcasting experiment

In the 1980s and ’90s, Friday nights often meant one thing: a sleepover at my grandmother’s house, where we huddled in the dim living room with the television tuned to the Atlanta Braves game on TBS, the tête-à-tête between beloved announcers Skip Caray and Pete van Wieren rumbling in the background. This tableau was not an unusual one across the South, thanks to one man and a crazy broadcasting experiment: Ted Turner, and his revolutionary Superstation.

Forty years ago, on December 17, 1976, the man who would become known as the “Mouth of the South” beamed a signal from his local Atlanta station WTCG—short for Turner Communications Group—to RCA’s Satcom 1 satellite, triggering the creation of only the second national cable station (along with HBO), and the first independent cable network to use a satellite to make its way into all fifty states (and 700,000 households).

The groundbreaking move followed a series of slick steps by the brash young advertising executive, as outlined in his 2008 memoir Call Me Ted: He had bought the struggling Atlanta UHF channel 17 station back in 1970, then won the rights to air Braves games two years later. By 1973, WTCG was in the black, and Turner had dubbed the Braves “America’s Team”—a franchise he would buy in January 1976, partly to keep them in Atlanta. Three years later, seven million people were tuning in, and Turner changed the company’s name to Turner Broadcasting System and the call letters to WTBS.

Over the decades, the then-free-subscription TBS morphed from a station Turner counter-programmed with the likes of The Andy Griffith Show, documentaries, World Championship Wrestling, and Hanna-Barbera cartoons to the “Very Funny” iteration of today. In October 2007, though, the Superstation as we knew it and loved it all those years of The Jetsons episodes and race-for-the-pennant baseball came to an end, when TBS spun off into a national cable network and channel 17 rebranded as Peachtree TV.

As Turner—who is now, among other things, an ardent conservationist—once said, “When you’re little, you have to do crazy things. You just can’t copy the big guys. To succeed you have to be innovative.” And thanks to his innovative risk-taking, the Superstation created a shared TV experience, particularly in the Southeast—and not a few warm memories.

Ted Turner on his Montana ranch in 2012.

Photo: Brent Humphreys

Ted Turner on his Montana ranch in 2012.