Media

The continent’s turning on to Terrible Ted

William Lowther February 26 1979
Media

The continent’s turning on to Terrible Ted

William Lowther February 26 1979

The continent’s turning on to Terrible Ted

Media

The frozen North has many legends from Dangerous Dan McGrew to Diamond Lil. But the Yukon has never seen anything like Terrible Ted Turner and his “super” TV station. The sourdoughs just love it.

Not that Terrible Ted—a nickname he picked up while shocking blue bloods with his appalling manners—ever ventures into the territory. He is far too

busy playing Rhett Butler back in Atlanta, Georgia. But his brand of entertainment is all the rage 220 miles northeast of Whitehorse in the mining town of Faro, where the 1,600 souls are switching from the Canadian culture of CBC to reruns, old movies and sports of WTCG.

It’s hardly surprising that at the end of an eight-hour shift mining lead and zinc, when it’s -48°C outside, the laborers prefer I Love Lucy to the Toronto Symphony or a documentary on weaving. What is unusual, however, is that they have a choice.

Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III, 40, owns and operates America’s first “super” TV station, WTCG of Atlanta. He has at least two imitators, one in Chicago, the other in San Francisco. But it’s Ted, the lean, mean, handsome tycoon who is setting the pace that now threatens the structure and style, and

conceivably the life, of North America’s television industry.

The Yukon saga perfectly illustrates developments which the Canadian government is wisely trying to control while, with a pleasing show of shrewdness, allowing licence where common sense dictates.

In the Yukon, where there is not a lot to do after dark, home TV viewing takes

on a special importance. But only “CBC North” is available. And here’s what a typical miner, reached by telephone in the bar of the Faro Hotel, thinks of that: “It’s terrible. The sports and documentaries are okay, it’s all the longhair stuff we don’t like. They’re always showing programs of orchestras and stuff like that.”

As a result, an entrepreneur with an eye to an icy buck, has set up an “earth station” in Faro. With about $150,000 worth of equipment you can tap the U.S. television satellites and pull down whatever programs are beamed out. And the main station on the most available satellite is Ted Turner’s WTCG. He gives the service away free to anyone who wants to pick it up from the satellite and rebroadcast it via cable. The businessmen in Whitehorse make their profit by renting out the cable system to eager customers at $22 a month—showing Ted’s tastes from 4,340 miles south.

In Canada, it’s all strictly illegal, for the federal government’s communica-

tions ministry will not license earth stations. They want to study and manage the satellite broadcasting system carefully. “If Ottawa allowed anyone to open an earth station with the potential of 30 or 40 cable TV channels, the nation would quite simply be flooded, even more than we are now, with the worst of U.S. pop culture,” says an industry expert in Toronto.

But what can the bureaucrats do about an isolated instance like Faro? It provides a much needed service to a remote region where Ottawa is trying to encourage settlement. A few months ago when the Faro idea was tried in Whitehorse, the government stepped in and made them close. But Faro is remote enough to lie beyond that kind of law. And the government is turning a blind eye. “We’re not doing anything sneaky,” says one of the investors. “Ottawa knows all about us.”

This spring, Ottawa is expected to rule on the use of satellites by cable TV companies and this could eventually lead to Canada’s own brand of super station which in turn will worry the domestic industry just as much as Turner’s schemes concern America’s three major networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC.

For although he does not—cannot— charge cable systems for picking up his programs, he keeps track of just who is using him. As of now, his Atlanta station is put out by cable systems in 45 states reaching nearly two million homes every night. He also operates the station 24 hours a day making it especially valuable to shift workers such as those in the Yukon. Turner makes his money from advertisers. He charges them a modified national rate, about 30 per cent lower than the networks.

The potential for undercutting and seriously damaging the networks is obvious. “We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the super stations have any impact on network television,” says Gene Mater, vice-president and assistant to the president of CBS Broadcast Group. “It’s too soon to tell.”

A multimillionaire sports entrepreneur, Turner owns the Atlanta Braves baseball team and the Hawks basketball team. He came to international fame himself by his flamboyant skippering of the sea racing yacht Courageous, successfully de fending America’s Cup in 1977.

It was after his loudmouthed behavior among the Boston Brahmins of the elite yachting world that some people

began referring to him as “the mouth of the South.”

Turner told Maclean's: “I think cable television is the way of the future. It’s not going to put the networks or small local stations out of business. It’s giving everybody a greater viewing choice.”

When Turner first bought the Atlanta TV station nine years ago it was losing $50,000 a month. Largely through satellite broadcasts he has increased his audience enormously and the station is now a potential gold mine.

Says Turner: “The networks and most news operations emphasize and emphasize the violence. People get to thinking that there’s no good left in this world. I’m trying to encourage people to be more cheerful.”

If this sounds nothing at all like the “mouth of the South” then it may be because of his new motto. Says Turner: “I believe that he profits most who serves the best. As people go through life they change. I guess I’m mellowing ...” William Lowther