TCM Ambushed: Comcast Says “Thanks Atlanta!”

So Comcast, with no apologies, pulls Turner Classic Movies from its basic cable services in Atlanta and other locales. This is especially annoying to Atlantans.

Back when Comcast “suits” were tormenting playmates in the sandboxes, Atlanta was the dominant place in the cable universe, thanks to Ted Turner.

By the mid ’70s, Ted Turner had moved beyond selling ads on billboards. Even running a highly successful UHF station did not satisfy his ambitions. So he bought the Atlanta Braves. He bought the Atlanta Hawks. He won the America’s Cup. Things were looking pretty good here on earth for Ted Turner. Then he looked to the skies where satellites could beam programming from his Channel 17 (elsewhere known as SuperStation TBS) to viewers nationwide.

If you got ’em by the eyeballs, their hearts and minds will follow.

SuperStation TBS offered a plethora of programming which included almost every Braves game, almost every Hawks game, classic movies and all-time TV favorites such as Leave It To Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show. If you found yourself glued to the tube in the dark, dank hours of the early morning then you might see Bill Tush,  Turner’s “low-budget Walter Cronkite,” deliver whatever he considered the news that day. Tush was assisted by his co-anchor, a German Shepherd named Rex.

Ted Turner was an Atlanta cult hero in those days. He may not have planned the free-for-all atmosphere at Channel 17 but he let it happen and his own quirky spirit certainly inspired it.

But as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, Turner was becoming more serious, in his own way, about the world. He began talking about a 24-hour all-news network. People thought he was nuts. Something like that will never work, so said the experts.

Though the idea had taken on various concepts in his head, he took a respectful approach and launched Cable News Network (CNN) on June 1, 1980. On that night CNN’s best known reporter, Daniel Schorr, interviewed President Jimmy Carter, then in the middle of one of the toughest years a post World War ll president ever faced.

Schorr gave CNN street cred with the discerning Left and Ted Turner found himself being taken more seriously in all corners. Though only four years had passed, it seemed a long time since he and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw staged a pre-game race to see who could push a baseball across the infield with his nose the fastest. Ted won, coming away with a bloodied nose and forehead. His Braves were awful that year and the next three. Turner would do whatever it took to get a few thousand more fans to the game, even shedding some skin. Give him credit, interest in the team picked up and with an eye to the future, he brought in baseball people who developed a winning team.

The Braves did experience a half decade of respectability (1980 – 1984), even winning a division title in 1982 with an impressive group of young players developed in the team’s system. But Ted, being Ted, wasn’t satisfied with the success the Braves had achieved. In 1984, he fired manager Joe Torre, who in 2014 would be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Torre succeeded Bobby Cox, who was fired in 1981 after four seasons. Cox was inducted in the same Baseball Hall of Fame class as Torre. The road to Cooperstown for Cox began when he was once again named as manager of the Braves in 1990. From there on, Turner never gave thought to finding another manager for the Braves. Besides, the world of cable TV was keeping him busy enough. Or better yet, Turner was keeping the world of cable TV busy. It’s that way with daring innovators.

Having learned he should let the baseball people run his baseball team, Turner focused his attention on what he knew best: TV programming. As with professional sports, there was always competition in broadcasting and the competitors in that field had deeper pockets than a George Steinbrenner. Since Turner never had bags of cash for his acquisitions, he often had to be the high-roller, betting on the come. He’d get the financing, knowing he’d make good with his next big idea.

CNN earned him gravitas but not long-term security in the broadcasting world. William S. Burroughs said, “When you stop growing, you start dying.” Turner kept that philosophy in mind; he would keep growing.

So Turner commenced on a shopping spree lasting nearly a decade. It wasn’t always a smooth ride. He wanted to buy one of the major networks, working hardest on a deal that would merge CBS with CNN. That didn’t take, so he entered another whirlwind, acquiring MGM/United Artists for $1.4 billion from Kirk Kerkorian. Then Kerkorian immediately bought United Artists back from Turner.

The MGM purchase appeared quite the risk for Turner but he wanted to create original programming for the SuperStation and MGM had the studios and a stream of films in production. However, the current batch of MGM productions stiffed and the films in the can looked no more promising. “One turkey after another” was how Turner described MGM’s upcoming releases.

Up against it, Turner ended up selling most of the assets acquired in the MGM purchase.  Still he managed to keep the MGM film library, which included the RKO and pre-1948 Warner Brothers films. For all the back-and-forthing, wheeling, dealing and disappointments Turner experienced in his efforts to grow his company, in the end he got what he wanted: truckloads of quality programming for the SuperStation and even another network or two.

In October 1988 he launched Turner Network Television (TNT), another cable network with programming similar to the SuperStation. Classic films, old TV shows and more sports.

Included in the MGM film libraries were the Warner Brothers (Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies) and MGM (Tom and Jerry) cartoons. Turner not only had Bogart and Bacall to fill his time slots, he also had Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Further inspired, in ’91 he purchased Hanna-Barbera Studios. More cartoons. Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone and scores of popular animated characters. Another viewing choice is birthed: Cartoon Network.

The truckloads of quality programming acquired by Turner in the mid ’80s found a home on April 14, 1994 when he launched Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Nothing but classic films. Uninterrupted and unedited. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. Cinephiles with insomnia now had something to do with all that extra time. Its first film was Gone With The Wind, Turner’s favorite and the same film TNT debuted with six years earlier.

TCM committed to go beyond presenting the automatics such as Gone With The Wind, Casablanca and Singin’ In The Rain. Underrated and overlooked films receive prime-time exposure and special commentary from the network’s hosts before and after the films are shown. Viewing the films and absorbing the filmmakers’ intentions enhance one’s personal education. Perspectives on how Elia Kazan moved directly from Gentleman’s Agreement to Pinky are gleaned just as one may observe how The Beatles moved from Revolver to Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. It isn’t just art for art’s sake; it’s observing culture and the times we’ve lived through or the times our grandparents told us about. Imagine that: being informed and entertained while sitting in front of the tube. Turner Classic Movies, like Ted Turner’s grandest venture, Cable News Network, fulfills its mission. Once you tune in, you’ll do so again and again.

But Comcast, the cable company that provides the wiring and beaming so Atlanta viewers can watch their favorites, has decided TCM isn’t top-drawer after all. On October 10, with little notice, they stripped it from their basic service. Comcast’s customers were told they could retain TCM by agreeing to pay another $9.99 monthly. What a swell bunch they have at Comcast. No doubt some of their customers would like to say, “Here’s your $9.99 for TCM, but that’s all you get. Please pull the rest of your channels from my set — and you can start with Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen and the rest of those charlatans. I want my TCM.”

Most of us will likely suck it in, though. Send the extra bucks and just recognize it as more insidious larceny, like at the gas pumps during the next contrived crisis. The better-informed Atlantans will also realize Comcast cares little for the city that enabled the cable industry’s greatest pioneer to succeed while trying out his latest wild idea. Atlantans will always appreciate Ted Turner. We’ll just endure Comcast and whatever conglomerate replaces them in good time.


(Photo by Jeff Cochran)