Brian Lamb, founder & creator of C-SPAN public affairs TV, is also host of the weekly “Q&A”show.
Among his fans and admirers, Brian Lamb is regarded as something of a national treasure. In case you’ve never heard of him, he’s the guy who came up with the idea for C-SPAN, the public affairs television network that covers Congress and much more. Lamb is part policy wonk, part activist, and part educator. Among other things, he’s a staunch believer in the public’s right to know, and that’s basically what led him to create C-SPAN. He also holds a healthy disdain for power centers of any kind, especially those that might try to monopolize information or manipulate or twist the truth. And this too, figures into Lamb’s motivation for creating C-SPAN. More on that later. But in addition to his TV network-creating skills, Brian Lamb is also a guy who is forever curious; a guy whose enthusiasm for learning has become a Sunday-night staple for millions of C-SPAN viewers. If anything, it is the content of these shows that is the “star;” Lamb simply revels in being the provider. For more than two decades, Lamb has hosted hundreds of authors and power players in engaging one-hour sessions on his “Booknotes” and “Q&A” TV shows. All manner of topics are explored on these shows, most within the general orbit of public affairs and related cultural territory. Yet Lamb is not the “star” of these shows, nor does he want to be. Lamb prefers to stay in the background and ask the questions and is usually off camera. If anything, it is the content of these shows that is the “star;” Lamb simply revels in being the provider. Whether it’s the key moments of discovery from a famous author, the most challenging decisions of an American president, or the quirky strategies of a twenties-something Capitol Hill web videographer, Brian Lamb delights in bringing new information and new people into public view. His quiet enthusiasm and inquisitiveness on these shows, and others, has been contagious, as his viewers and fans will attest.
Early C-SPAN logo, which stands for the "Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network."
However, in March 2012, after 34 years at the helm of C-SPAN, Lamb at age 70, announced his plan to step down, though his Sunday night “Q&A” show would continue. With the announcement, well-deserved national kudos began rolling in, not only for Lamb’s work in prying open Congress,but also for the civil tone he has offered in the national dialogue. Especially in his book and interview programs, Lamb has consistently shown with his eclectic range of subjects and guests, how television can be used to inform citizens and elevate learning, doing so without bombast or celebrity fanfare. Through it all, Lamb and C-SPAN have created a kind of “public learning commons” for millions. What follows here is some of that story, using Lamb’s career as the primary conduit.
Brian Lamb in earlier clip from C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal,” where journalists, public policy makers & call-in audience discuss events of the day.
Back in the 1960s, when Brian Lamb was a young naval officer stationed at Washington’s Navy Yard, he would visit Capitol Hill periodically to watch floor debates in the House and Senate. It may have been during those visits that Lamb first began ruminating on the idea that more people ought to be able to see what he saw from the visitor’s gallery. But the full vision of what Lamb began to see then, wouldn’t really jell for another decade or more. Years later, in the mid-1970s, after much experience in the ways of Washington and learning about the changing communications industry, Brian Lamb seized the opportunity to offer a bold idea – a non-profit TV channel, funded by the cable industry, that would cover Congress and do public affairs television. Lamb’s idea came to be known as C-SPAN, an alphabet-soup label that could stand alongside the big brand TV network of ABC, CBS, and NBC. C-SPAN stood for “Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network.”
Typical scene on C-SPAN 2, here showing U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) making a point on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 2010.
More than 30 years later, a “should-be-grateful” nation now has C-SPAN television covering the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, Congressional committee hearings, Capitol Hill press conferences, political campaigns across the country, and much more. C-SPAN coverage today is 24/7 with a steady diet of politics, public affairs, American history, books and authors, book fairs, speeches, policy wonk conferences, interviews, public building and museum tours, and more. There are now three C-SPAN TV channels, a radio station, 20 information-packed websites, C-SPAN buses that travel the country, and assorted and ongoing C-SPAN specials. C-SPAN’s video archives now hold more than 190,000 hours of content dating from 1987, and its TV channels reach into more than 100 million homes served by cable and satellite. C-SPAN radio is broadcast on FM radio in Washington, D.C., and is also available on XM Satellite Radio and over the internet. And C-SPAN programs, of course, have no commercials or pledge drives.
Brian Lamb at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, Springfield, IL, April 2005.
C-SPAN’s coverage of politics and government is unedited and unfiltered – what might be called the ultimate in reality TV. And most importantly, the network operates independently; neither the cable industry nor Congress has power over content or programming. Congress does, however, control the cameras in the main House and Senate chambers, a policy Lamb and C-SPAN have consistently sought to change (As Lamb has explained elsewhere: “There are eight cameras in each chamber. They’re remote controlled cameras. They’re operated in the basement of the Capitol. And we have nothing to say about this.”). The C-SPAN networks, meanwhile, have broadened their public affairs programming over the years, adding more depth and variety. At its core, however, C-SPAN is still focused on policy makers, government officials, journalists, editors, and others who work in and around the public policy process.
Brian Lamb in C-SPAN control room. In recent years, he has been mistaken for John Glenn or John McCain.
Still, Lamb acknowledged to Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey in 2012 that many people not familiar with C-SPAN might not get it, or that they see C-SPAN programs as “a little bit weird.” Yet the contrast with network and regular cable TV is clear. “Everyone else is about making money,” Lamb explained, “and the emphasis is on personalities and, nowadays, it’s so much an emphasis on having a point of view. That’s just not what we do.” The decibel level on C-SPAN is part of its civility as well. There are no “shout shows” at C-SPAN. In fact, Lamb and colleagues have been described as practicing ”a different kind of journalism.” As John Sullivan has written: “The style would be conversational not confrontational. No ‘gotcha’ questions would be heard on C-SPAN.”
Much of what has become C-SPAN over the last three decades bears the stamp of Lamb. In his 34 years at the helm, Lamb has conducted over 1,000 interviews, taken thousands of phone calls from viewers, and discussed the issues of the day with leading authors, journalists and politicians. “…We’re the antithesis of everything you see on commercial television.” - Brian LambHe has interviewed every president since Lyndon Johnson and many world leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.
But one thing is for certain: neither Lamb nor C-SPAN are in it for the limelight. As Washington Post writer Paul Farhi noted of Lamb in March 2012 – that although he had appeared in thousands of hours of interviews and call-in programs, Lamb “has never once uttered his own name on the air. Too showy. Too much like regular TV…” Lamb and his people have avoided that kind of attention. “No one does that here,” Lamb explained to Farhi. “We just don’t do it. It’s always been part of our mission not to make us the center of attention…We’re the antithesis of everything you see on commercial television.” Nor does Lamb take credit for C-SPAN, typically deflecting personal kudos that come his way, pointing out that many others make it all possible.
Brian Lamb was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana, in the west-central part of the state.
One thing to remember about Brian Lamb is that he is from the Midwest. He was born and raised in Lafayette, Indiana. And he takes great stock in his Midwest roots, often lauds his high school teachers for their influence, and speaks highly of the Midwest values that sent him on his way, as he relayed in one interview:
“I think being from a small town, being from the middle of the country, being from a relatively small family with parents who were alive and alert but not heavily educated, being from an area where people allowed you to do anything you wanted to do–you could fail… If you succeeded, they didn’t overdo the praise. There was a great skepticism in the middle of the country about a lot of things, but yet there was a genuineness about it that you often don’t find on the two coasts. Everything I lived back in Lafayette, Indiana, has had a tremendous impact on what I’ve tried to do here….”
Brian Lamb at WASK radio.
As a Catholic school boy, he served early morning mass in the traditional Latin, but later attended public high school. Interested more in radio than sports as a young boy, Lamb remembers listening to the broadcast shows that came in from Chicago and other cities. He also built crystal radio sets to pick up local signals. At the age of 17 he held a radio disc jockey job at WASK radio station in Lafayette. Henry Rosenthal, the station’s owner, helped him along. Lamb traveled to Chicago on occasion to interview musicians such Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and others. He also interviewed Nat King Cole, Count Basie, The Kingston Trio and Brenda Lee.
Lamb at one point had set his sights on becoming an entertainer. After he began college at Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, he did stints as a drummer in a few local bands while getting his degree. At Purdue, Lamb was also attuned to current events and national politics. In the spring of 1960, the university held mock political conventions in which Lamb participated. On the Democratic side, there were a number of candidates then vying for the presidency, still months away from the national convention that would formally nominate U.S. Senator John Kennedy as the nominee.
Early 1960s: Brian Lamb hosting his TV show, “Dance Date.”
Early 1960s: Program card for the “Dance Date” TV show with Brian Lamb. Source: Cable Center video.
Early 1960s: Brian Lamb, left, with musical guests on “Dance Date” TV program. Cable Center video.
Purdue students that spring nominated Kennedy, but as Lamb recalls: “It wasn’t just that we nominated Kennedy. It was also that we paired him with Lyndon Johnson, which no one nationally was doing at that early stage.” Lamb today remains an advocate of mock elections on college campuses, adding, “I learned so much by going through that process.”
By his junior year at Purdue in 1961-62, Lamb got a taste of the television business after he pitched an idea for an American Bandstand type TV dance show to a local station owner Dick Shively. Dick Clark’s American Band- standhad become a wildly popular show, which had gone national on the ABC- TV in August of 1957. “I loved Dick Clark and what he did with American Bandstand when I was a kid,” explained Lamb. “When you’re young you copy everybody else.”
Lamb titled his TV dance show, Dance Date, which he hosted. It was telecast weekday afternoons for a half-hour on a UHF station in Lafayette — WLFI, channel 19. But Lamb ran the whole show at Dance Date and he took responsibility well beyond just handling the microphone.
“I built the sets, hosted the show, got the dancers, sold it to advertisers,” he explained in one interview. “It was a very important experience.”
Some fans of the show remember Lamb holding up the Beatles’ first album and talking about the group during one of the shows, as this was the era when the Beatles’s music was first being introduced in the U.S. Brian Lamb’s television future, however, would be quite different from Dance Date.
Back at Purdue in 1963, meanwhile, Lamb finished his college education with a Bachelor’s degree in Speech. He thought about law school briefly, and actually attended class a few days in Bloomington at Indiana University, but then joined the Navy for four years.
Naval officer, Brian Lamb, 1960s.
1960s: Naval officer Brian Lamb with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Student protest against Vietnam War in Madison ,Wisconsin, 1960s.
Lamb’s tour in the Navy included two years at sea on the USS Thuban, and two years back in Washington, with time spent both at the Pentagon and at the White House as a social aide to President Lyndon Johnson. Among other duties there, Lamb would announce the names of visitors to the President so the President could then address each person by name as they were introduced.
One notable event for Lamb as White House social aide came in 1967 when he became the down-the-aisle escort for Lady Bird Johnson at the wedding of her daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, to Chuck Robb.
But at the Pentagon’s public affairs office during those years, Lamb saw how the big broadcast news networks worked and got to know what news correspondents did. He noticed that while they all had different personalities and styles, they were basically covering the same stories. He also had other experiences at the Pentagon that contributed to his C-SPAN idea.
During the Vietnam War, a group of anti-war demonstrators had come to the Pentagon to protest, and they were given access to the building by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in a show of goodwill. The group had spread itself across a corridor and gathered peacefully. Then an ABC News correspondent arrived and turned on the cameras.
As Lamb recalls: “These kids who had been quiet and serene stood up with their placards… What [television viewers] saw was not what was actually happening. They saw a minute-and-a-half story on the evening news. It was misleading. I said to myself, ‘It’s too bad the public can’t see the whole thing and let them make up their own mind.’”
C-SPAN coverage in later years would become known, in fact, for leaving the cameras on both before events convened and after they concluded, whether committee hearings or expert conclaves, so viewers could also get a taste for the milling around, and what was going on beyond the main event.
Another media-related experience Lamb had about the same time was when he went to hear a speech by civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael at a Baptist church in Washington, D.C. Lamb listened to the 30-minute speech by Carmichael and found it to be mostly thoughtful and intelligent. But NBC News that night telecast only a part of the speech. “What made it on [the broadcast] was the fire and brimstone,” Lamb would later explain. During those years Lamb also had some exposure to urban unrest.
“The Detroit Riots” July 1967
During Brian Lamb’s Navy hitch, when he worked in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, he was sent on one assignment in the summer of 1967 which he later recalled in a longer interview:
I was in the audiovisual office, which was responsible for staying in touch and answering queries by the networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS.
In July of 1967, one of the deputy assistant secretaries came in and said to me, “Go home and pack your bag and take this tape recorder with you and fly to Detroit and report to the chief of police’s office.” “…Even though we were in the middle of the Vietnam War and I was in the military, I had never quite seen anything like this…” - Brian LambEvery time there was a news conference with the governor of the state, George Romney, I was to record it and then feed it back over a telephone line to the White House situation room. They would transcribe it and get it to the president.
I’ll never forget it. There were race riots and forty-three blacks were killed in Detroit in July of 1967, and two hundred people were injured. I arrived in the city with, I think, the 82nd Airborne.
There were tanks on the street corners. There were fatigues-wearing military people in the Cadillac Hilton, where we were all staying. It was a bit overwhelming. Even though we were in the middle of the Vietnam War and I was in the military, I had never quite seen anything like this.
I reported for duty in this small room, and in that room were Cyrus Vance, the deputy secretary of defense at the time; Warren Christopher, who was the deputy attorney general; John Doar, who was then an assistant attorney general and who went on later to be the Watergate counsel; a man named Dan Henkin, who was the deputy assistant secretary of defense; and Roger Wilkins, who was the top civil rights man in the Justice Department; and me.
At the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, Lamb also realized the public wasn’t getting the full truth about the war, and that the government was lying to the American people. “I got a firsthand education about how the media interacts with the government, and it led me to think that there could be a better way,” he would later say. Lamb was envisioning a kind of TV coverage that would have no censorship or manipulation by the government, but also no commentary from media pundits.
In December 1967, after his Navy hitch, Lamb interviewed for a job as a personal aide to Richard Nixon, who was then beginning his 1968 presidential campaign. But Lamb did not get the job – a good result as it turned out – and he returned briefly to local television work in Lafayette, Indiana.
“Nixon-Agnew Gig” 1967
In 1967, Brian Lamb was briefly a field representative in the Midwest for “United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew.” His main task was to tape record voter comments about political and social issues. At the end of each week the tapes were dispatched to Washington where the candidates would supposedly listen to them. “I was naive and gullible enough to think this was an honest effort,” Lamb would say in recalling his experience. “Later I was told all the tapes were edited down to an hour that Nixon and Agnew heard – which was a total lie.” After that, Lamb vowed that some day he would go back to the community and go on the street corner and ask people what they really thought about Nixon and Agnew. The experience also influenced his thinking on C-SPAN’s call-in programs, open to all citizen views, and have become one of C-SPAN’s strengths. But for Lamb, his 1967 stint wasn’t the end of his Nixon-Agnew experience. In 1986, at a roast for Walter Cronkite during the Society of Professional Journalists’ convention, CBS commentator Andy Rooney leveled some sarcastic comments at Lamb. “Rooney attacked me personally,” Lamb would later recall. “He said, ‘Brian Lamb worked for the Nixon-Agnew White House and we know what Nixon and Agnew thought of the First Amendment.”‘ Lamb is typically quick to point out that he has never been a member of a political party, nor has he ever contributed to any party. He does acknowledge his conservative heritage, however. “Certainly, being from Indiana I was not raised in a liberal environment.”
But Lamb soon came back to Washington. There, he ran into Howard Baker, a young U.S. Senator from Tennessee who Lamb had met earlier at a White House social event. Baker helped Lamb find a short-term job in the Nixon-Agnew campaign, where Lamb spent ten weeks, including some time on the road in the Midwest (see sidebar).
Lamb then worked as a reporter for UPI radio, but in 1969 became press secretary for Republican Senator Peter H. Dominick of Colorado. Lamb had also been thinking about politics and cable TV, as he later relayed in an interview with the Cable Center: “I remember in 1969, before I went to work on Capitol Hill, that I wrote a letter to a friend of mine, Dick Shively, who used to own Telesis [cable system], which is based in Indiana. I remember proposing to him that we create a Washington bureau for cable television where we would do information and interviews. That was my way of throwing my oar in the water, saying this is something that this industry ought to do and something that I want to do.”
By 1971, Lamb was working as a media and congressional assistant to the director of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy. This experience came at a time when a national strategy was being developed for reforming communications policy — policy that would open the doors to satellite and cable television, enabling a new competition with the big broadcast networks. Lamb had a front row seat to this policy development, and among others in that office, got to know Antonia Scalia, who was then general counsel for the Telecommunications Office, and with whom Lamb would later spar when Scalia rose to the U.S. Supreme Court where he objected to C-SPAN cameras.
After working in the White House telecommunications office, Lamb returned to journalism as the editor of his own biweekly newsletter called The Media Report. By May of 1974, he also began writing for CATV Weekly, a small cable industry magazine/newsletter. Lamb would later explain how important that job became in terms of getting to know key players in the fledgling cable TV industry:
By covering the new cable TV industry and inter- viewing its executives, Brian Lamb became a familiar face throughout the industry.
“…I remember Barbara [Ruger, editor] saying to me: ‘You come write for us, and we’ll put your picture in the column. You want to do this network that you’re talking about, this picture and this column in this little magazine…will introduce you to the industry.’ And it worked. It was the beginning of my introduction to the people in this business. Every week in the magazine I would go out and interview a leader, and I’d take their picture and we’d put it on the front page of the magazine. I would interview them, just like you’re doing right now. I’d transcribe it myself and we’d run the interview the next week in the magazine. I’d write my column with my picture on it. And it took a long time, but a couple years later everybody knew who I was in the business. And then I started to go to them and say what do you think about my idea for C-SPAN?”
1970s: Brian Lamb became Washington bureau chief at Cablevision magazine. Sample cover, 1979.
He also covered telecommunications issues as Washington bureau chief for CableVision, a biweekly magazine dealing with cable television news owned by Titsch Publishing. By this time, Lamb’s idea for a cable TV public affairs bureau in Washington had sharpened but only a few people knew about it, and those who knew about it weren’t all that excited by what they heard. “I had pitched it to a whole bunch of people, and they’d said, kind of, ‘Hey kid, go away, we’re not interested.’” But in August of 1977, he came upon another chance to pitch the idea to a group of about 40 cable owners organized under the name Cable Satellite Access Entity. This group would periodically entertain ideas for new programming. That August they gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington where Lamb made his pitch.
Cable television at this time, at least in the mainstream sense, was in its very early stages. Home Box Office had started in 1975, the same year that RCA’s Satcom II satellite was launched and put into operation. In mid-December 1976, Ted Turner’s “superstation,” WTCG in Atlanta (later renamed WTBS), beamed its first signals via satellite to four cable providers beyond Atlanta. Turner’s Cable News Network – CNN – would not come into existence until June 1980. Lamb pitched “more interviews with members of Congress”–and longer interviews–something cable television could do. Only a few other systems were up and running in 1977. Pat Robertson had a channel in Portsmouth, Virginia and Bob Rosencrans had a Madison Square Garden offering of sporting events at night.
So when Lamb came to Mayflower to make his pitch in August 1977, he was springing his idea on a group that wasn’t quite ready for what he was proposing. As Lamb later recalled in a Cable Center interview: “…I said to the group, ‘My idea is that we figure out a way to do public affairs. That we do our own ‘Meet the Press’ type program, because cable has no identity with this. They’ve never done any public service.” Lamb told the group what he had in mind was “public affairs”and not news. “Not anchor people sitting at desks telling you what’s happening. More interviews with members of Congress — long-form interviews– something that cable television could do.”
Brian Lamb in a later photograph with Bob Rosencrans.
After the meeting was over at the Mayflower, “it was a resounding dud,” Lamb recalled. “Most people looked at me like I was smoking something, like, ‘What is he doing here? This is not real, is it?’” But then, when all seemed lost, two of the cable owners — Bob Rosencrans and Ken Gunter– walked over to Lamb and said: “Boy, that sounded interesting. We’d like to help you. We’d like to do something. Let’s talk.” And they did. Rosencrans and Gunter told Lamb they thought they could help get something started and could raise “$150,000 a year for you.” After some on-again, off-again moments, Rosencrans and Gunter helped Lamb get the ball rolling. Rosencrans was first with his check of $25,000. And from there, Lamb went one by one to other cable and satellite operators who followed suit, collecting some 22 checks and eventually forming C-SPAN’s first board of directors. But Lamb would later praise Rosencrans and Gunter for their genuine commitment to the C-SPAN idea as a public service, and not as a cable industry PR gimmick.
1970s: Bob Rosencrans & Brian Lamb near satellite dish for C-SPAN in early years. Cable Center video.
Lamb, meanwhile, was still formulating next steps. By this time he was also doing short videos on Capitol Hill taping short segments with members of Congress for a “Cable Video” program. In the fall of 1977, while interviewing Congressman Lionel Van Deerlin, a Democrat from San Diego, Lamb noticed a small black-and-white TV screen in the congressman’s office transmitting from a security camera in the U.S. House of Representatives. It was showing the live debate of members on the House floor. For some years in the House, there had been committee discussion about the possibility of using TV cameras for broadcast, but such proposals went nowhere. But Lamb, seeing this feed in Van Deerlin’s office, suggested to the congressman that it could be used to send a live signal out to cable stations all across the nation. Van Deerlin liked Lamb’s idea so much he offered it on the House floor that same day.
Although telecasts of opening sessions of Congress and presidential speeches to Congress had occurred from time to time dating to the late 1940s, Congress was generally cautious about incorporating television into its operations. In 1952, House Speaker Sam Rayburn banned TV coverage from regular floor sessions and com- mittee hearings. Occasionally, hearings such as the Kefauver Senate crime hearings of 1950-51 were broadcast. Yet in 1952, House Speaker Sam Rayburn banned TV coverage from regular floor sessions and committee hearings. But even with that, special circumstances, such as the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, would bring TV coverage. And in the mid-1970s,with the Watergate hearings and the prospect of impeachment proceedings against President Richard M. Nixon, the House authorized broadcast coverage of floor debate, which did not occur since Nixon resigned. Still, the 1974 network telecasts of the Senate Watergate hearings and House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment probe proved that Congressional TV watching could be compelling – though driven by extraordinary events in this case.
Tip O’Neill, Speaker of the House, was key in opening up Congress to C-SPAN in late 1970s.
But in October 1977, Congressman Van Deerlin’s resolution to put the House debate on TV came quite suddenly and unexpectedly. In fact, Van Deerlin called Brian Lamb from off the House floor to get his help. “You’re not going to believe this,” said Van Deerlin to Lamb over the telephone, “but this thing’s on the floor right now. If you want this stuff on the record, give it to me over the phone, and I’ll…go out on the floor and make a speech.” And that’s exactly what happened. Van Deeriln’s House Resolution 866 was adopted by an overwhelming vote of 342 to 44. Soon Van Deerlin received a call for the office of Speaker of the House, Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-MA). “The Speaker wants to known what the hell you were talking about yesterday,” said a staffer, asking Van Deerlin about his resolution. Van Deerlin then put the Speaker’s office in touch with Lamb. In January 1978, Lamb met with O’Neill and his staff, and he pitched the cable idea, noting in part, it would be a chance to “spit in the eye” of the big networks, which was said to have appealed to O’Neill. Lamb left the meeting with a handshake agreement.
In terms of opening up Congress to the TV cameras, Lamb gives O’Neill “150 percent credit for being the one that opened the doors.” O’Neill “took the barriers down,” says Lamb, and was the one guy who could also have stopped it in its tracks. But he didn’t. And the reason, in part, was politics. At the time, the U. S. Senate was getting all the attention in the media, or at least the lion’s share. And according to Lamb, “Tip O’Neill’s younger colleagues kept saying, ‘We’ve got to open this place up. If we don’t…, we’re going to be forgotten.’ And so Tip O’Neill eventually said, ‘OK, I’m ready, let’s go’.”
Al Gore, Democrat of Tennessee, had the distinction of delivering the first C-SPAN speeches in both the House, March 19, 1979, and, shown here, in the Senate on June 2, 1986.
By May 1978, Lamb had assembled broad support among cable operators for his C-SPAN venture. In 1979, with a budget of $450,000, Lamb and his four employees set up shop across the Potomac River in Virginia in a small room near Washington’s National Airport. They shared the space with Cablevision magazine in a building that initially had no cable reception. They had one phone line in those days and would later share satellite access with Bob Rosencrans’ Madison Square Garden sports shows, as C-SPAN programs were sometimes bumped to make room for professional wrestling. But in March 1979, C-SPAN sent out its first live views of a U.S. House of Representatives session to its network – then some 3.5 million homes served by 350 cable systems. At that time, only about 19 percent of American homes were wired for cable TV.
Brian Lamb with Republican National Committee chairman, Bill Brock on C-SPAN, 1979.
1980: Brian Lamb at Sen. Edward Kennedy’s campaign offices in Philadelphia, PA. Photo: Cable Center
Brian Lamb, far right, hosting C-SPAN’s first viewer call-in show at the National Press Club, October 1980.
Brian Lamb, right, interviews former Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy on early C-SPAN set. AP photo.
1981: Brian Lamb with President Ronald Reagan.
The first U.S. House of Representatives speech C-SPAN sent out to its cable viewers came from a 30-year-old, second-term congressman from Tennessee named Al Gore. Speaking from the members’ front-and-center podium on the House floor, Gore made note of the historic event: “The marriage of this medium and of our open debate have the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.” Gore further praised the coming of television to Congress as “a solution for the lack of confidence in government,” also adding that “television will change this institution.”
Once the House cameras were rolling, Lamb and C-SPAN would turn their attention to the Senate, but that would entail a much longer fight. In the meantime, other kinds of public affairs programming were pursued, including one-on-one interviews with members of Congress, coverage of speeches from the National Press Club, the beginning of call-in shows involving C-SPAN viewers, and early political campaign coverage.
In the early days, Lamb worked from a small table and a basic set, with room divider behind him as he interviewed politicians. In the first photo at right, Lamb is interviewing Republican Bill Brock from Tennessee , believed to be from 1979 when Brock chaired the Republican National Committee (RNC). Brock had served in the House from 1963-1971, the U.S. Senate through 1977, RNC chairman 1977-1981, U.S. Trade Representative (1981-1985), and was appointed Sec. of Labor by President Reagan 1985-1987.
By early 1980, the first National Press Club speech covered by C-SPAN was that by Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. By then, C-SPAN had also begun some public education activity, such as its student seminars with the Close-Up Foundation, which brings high school students to Washington to meet with politicians and government officials.
Lamb and C-SPAN also began tracking political campaign activity outside of Washington. In the summer of 1980, for example, Lamb interviewed campaign workers at Senator Edward Kennedy’s campaign headquarters in Philadelphia, as Kennedy was them mounting a nomination challenge to incumbent president Jimmy Carter. Also in 1980, C-SPAN began a series it called “A Day in The Life,” a program that followed a day’s worth of activity of someone who worked in politics, journalism, or public affairs. The first offering in this series came in October 1980 following Larry King, who then had a radio show with Mutual Radio – before he became a TV personality. The first federal agency hearing was also covered by C-SPAN around this time.
On October 7, 1980, Lamb and C-SPAN broadcast their first call-in show from the National Press Club, the beginning of what became the three-hour morning show known as “Washington Journal.” On that show, Lamb and his staff adopted a standard for themselves to make sure they took 50 to 60 calls during that program, to make sure the program stayed faithful to being a place where average people to ask questions of policy makers and offer their own views. The 50-to-60 calls rule was also used to discourage show hosts from talking too much. Lamb also hosted a Saturday morning round table with two or three Washington journalists, which was also open to viewer call-ins.
Brian Lamb, jack-of-all trades, on C-SPAN rooftop with antenna, wintry day, 1983. Photo, Cable Center.
C-SPAN gradually lengthened and broadened its coverage of Congress, adding coverage of congressional hearings and expanding its coverage to eight hours a day in 1981; then 16 hours a day in early 1982, to full 24-hours-a-day coverage by September 1982. In 1983, it started occasional coverage of the Canadian House of Commons. By 1984, C-SPAN began covering the full U.S. election process, including the early presidential primaries. In early 1984, Lamb and C-SPAN began sampling voter sentiment in some primary states, as Jack Frazee, an early C-SPAN chairman relayed in one Cable Center video clip: ”I can remember being with Brian Lamb in New Hampshire during the  primary thinking about ways to show what was going on there. We decided to go into a supermarket and have Brian start interviewing people… These people opened up… to Brian, told him what they thought about the election and the candidates. It was powerful and humorous at the same time…”
In February 1984, C-SPAN also covered for the first time ever, an Iowa caucus event live and uninterrupted. In July and August that year it offered, also for the first time, full, live and uninterrupted coverage of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Back in the House, meanwhile, members of Congress were beginning to learn how to use C-SPAN to their advantage, with some making speeches that would be aired and taped for later use in their home districts or in campaigning. And some members also used the TV cameras to build a following beyond their own districts.
1984: Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-GA), a rising young Congressman, used C-SPAN to enhance his career.
In 1984, Newt Gingrich, then a two-term Republican congressman from Georgia, recognized that the C-SPAN cameras in the House could help him gain national exposure. Gingrich began using them regularly to make speeches to an empty chamber in off hours, often attacking the Democrats as he did. In May 1984, his staff had worked up a particularly critical document implicating Democrats in their own words in various foreign policy blunders in Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Gingrich read the document for the C-SPAN audience, accusing the Democrats of believing that “America does nothing right.” That brought House Speaker Tip O’Neill to a full boil, who a few days later left his speaker’s station and strode angrily onto the floor, pointing at Gingrich, “You challenged their patriotism, and it is the lowest thing that I have ever seen in my 32 years in Congress!” Gingrich had made all the network news shows, some reporting that with his C-SPAN performances, “a star was born.” Even Gingrich himself at one point told the press, “I am now a famous person.” Gingrich would continue to use C-SPAN throughout his career, rising to Speaker in 1994 after toppling the Democrats from power in the House. Gingrich later resigned from that post under pressure after Republicans took a drubbing in 1998 elections. As of April 2012, Gingrich was among candidates competing for the Republican Presidential nomination.
August 1985: Brian Lamb, C-SPAN Chairman & CEO, with Paul Fitzpatrick, President.
In 1985, C-SPAN, was still only covering half of Congress, as the U.S. Senate had been recluctant to televise their proceedings. But they soon began to see that the House was becoming better recognized across the country because of their coverage. As Lamb later put it, “The Senate went on television because the House went on television.” Senator Howard Baker from Tennessee was an early ally in that fight, but other Senators thought Baker was advocating for C-SPAN because he was going to run for President, and so had little success. The Senator who actually became the key C-SPANN supporter was Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia. Byrd initially had been among the most fierce opponents of TV in the senate. However, Byrd deeply loved the U.S. Senate and was a student of its history and procedures. By the mid-1980s, he saw that the House was getting all the media attention, so he agreed to help bring TV to the U.S. Senate. Byrd, minority leader at the time, was given the issue by Republican Bob Dole, then majority leader, and Byrd became key to approval since he could disarm southern Democrats who would otherwise filibuster to block it.
Brian Lamb at left with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), far right, flipping the switch for C-SPAN 2 on June 2, 1986. Paul Fitzpatrick, center, was then president of C-SPAN.
By June 1986, the second C-SPAN channel, C-SPAN 2 launched to cover the U.S. Senate. June 2nd was the first day of televised coverage, and like the House, the position of the camera was controlled by the Senate. At that time, C-SPAN 2 was carried in 6.7 million homes.
The photo at right shows C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb at left with Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) far right flipping the switch for C-SPAN2, on June 2, 1986. In the middle is Paul Fitzpatrick, then-president of C-SPAN. As he had done in the House, now U.S. Senator Al Gore (D-TN) made the first televised floor speech. On July 29, 1986 the Senate voted in favor of permanent televised coverage of its proceedings. By January 1987, C-SPAN 2 was offering 24-hours of programming.
1986 cartoon from Connecticut’s “Hartford Courant” newspaper on C-SPAN coming to the U.S. Senate.
With the coming of television in the Senate, there were fears that some members would resort to theatrical performances or engage in “grandstanding,” and a few in the media poked fun at the Senate. The cartoon at left appeared in Connecticut’s Hartford Courant newspaper. It shows a Senator dancing on Senate President’s desk, as an advisor or colleague off to the side reminds him, “C-SPAN Senator, Not MTV.” In the mid-1980s, the popular “Music TV” or MTV cable channel was known for its rock music videos. The members of the U.S. Senate, however, maintained their decorum, even with the cameras. Generally, the presence of cameras improved the level of debate. Members used more visual material – charts, graphs, enlarged newspaper stories, etc – during their remarks. But to be sure, there was a share of “playing to the cameras” and Senators using the medium for their own political purposes, as members on the House side were doing. Elsewhere in Washington, C-SPAN helped change the nature of work for lobbyists, journalists and others who worked in and around Congress. Lobbyists could now monitor what was going from their offices by staying tuned to C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2. Journalists could also follow floor action via C-SPAN for breaking news on legislative stories. C-SPAN coverage of Congressional hearings could also draw a crowd, depending on topic. In 1987, the Iran-Contra hearings, which covered a military-arms-for-hostages scandal implicating senior Reagan Adminstration officials and the routing of funds to support Nicaraguan Contra fighters, drew in many new C-SPAN viewers.
ABC-TV analyst Jeff Greenfield being interviewed on C-SPAN by Brian Lamb, January 1988.
But C-SPAN by the mid-1980s had become more that just a televised window on House and Seante proceedings, as its coverage and public affairs programming reached out to more venues. In July 1987, for example, C-SPAN Classroom was launched, an expansion of C-SPAN’s outreach in public education.
Brian Lamb and other C-SPAN hosts by this date were also doing dozens of interviews with journalists, historians, TV producers, and other professionals involved with public policy and public affairs. In January 1988, for example, Lamb interviewed Jeff Greenfield, an ABC TV analyst who covered politics, and also author Gail Sheehy, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair magazine who had written about the 1988 presidential candidates. These interviews were part of a C-SPAN series profiling New York city’s political and communications leaders.
In June 1988, C-SPAN released a 483-page book offering viewer profiles, anecdote & demographics.
Also in 1988, Brain Lamb, Susan Swain, and the C-SPAN staff published the first book about their network. Titled America’s Town Hall, the book’s subtitle asked: “What Links Frank Zappa, Ronald Reagan and Kay Cutcher… and You?” Answer: they all watch C-SPAN. The book, in fact, was a “who-watches-us” assessment of the network at its ten-year mark. It was also C-SPAN “taking stock” of its operation, using profiles of 100 or so famous and no-so-famous viewers, why they watched, what they liked, etc. Among C-SPAN viewers profiled in the book were the three mentioned in the subtitle – Frank Zappa, then a controversial rock musician; U.S. President Ronald Reagan; and Kay Cutcher an Iowa activist. Among others included were former Congressman and civil rights leader, Andrew Young; TV talk show host Phil Donahue; Congressman Dick Armey (R-TX); Princeton basketball coach Pete Carril; U.S. Senator Howard Baker (R-TN); U.S. Naval Academy political science professor Stephen Frantzich; U.S. Congressman Newt Gingrich (R-GA); “Friends of C-SPAN” activist Shirley Rossi; and others. These and other viewers offered accounts of why they liked C-SPAN or how its programming figured into their work or other activities. The title for America’s Town Hall came from a speech that Congressman Jim Wright(D-TX) had given praising the network, saying Lamb and staff had created “a town hall for the nation.” At the book’s release, Lamb and other panelists convened at the Washington Metropolitan Cable Club to introduce it, along with a short video by C-SPAN staff explaining the book’s content and characters, all of which is available at C-SPAN today (see Sources).
Brian Lamb’s five-part interview with Neil Sheehan, author of “A Bright Shining Lie,” was the beginning of what became C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” TV series.
In the fall of 1988, Brian Lamb and C-SPAN experimented with some new programming focused on books and authors. Lamb had seen a short TV interview with Neil Sheehan, who had written a controversial book – A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. Sheehan had covered the Vietnam War as a New York Times reporter and he used the career of U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann to trace the history of U.S. involvement in the war. Lamb was frustrated by the short TV program he had seen with Sheehan and wanted to know more. So he invited Sheehan to C-SPAN for an interview. What followed were five 30-minute segments with Sheehan that focused on various parts of the book and Sheehan’s career. Sheehan’s book would become a national best-seller, win a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Strong viewer response to Lamb’s interview with Sheehan on this book led to the decision to start producing a weekly author interview program. It became one of C-SPAN’s most popular and successful programs – Booknotes.
July 1989: Jeanne Simon’s book.
Oct 1989: Harrison Salisbury’s book.
Oct 1989: Ralph Abernathy’s book.
Mar 1990 - Sen. Abourezk's book.
Lamb began hosting Booknotes in April 1989 as a regular Sunday evening show featuring non-fiction books and their authors. He would interview each author for an uninterrupted hour – “one book, one author, one hour,” is how he would sometimes describe his show. The set was simple: black background, two chairs, coffee table, two cups. Lamb asked basic questions: “Why did you write this?” “Where do you do your writing?” or “What caused you to take that approach?” Lamb’s formula on this and other C-SPAN shows was simple: “stay out of the way” and let the author give full and complete answers without interruption. What Lamb did on these shows was carefully listen to his guest, sometimes formulating next questions on the what the guest offered in reply. Substance and style were both covered, and viewers rarely went away disappointed.
Talking with National Endowment for the Humanities chairman Bruce Cole in 2003, Lamb allowed a peek into how reading and books got hold of him a few years prior to the creation of Booknotes:
…Until I was about forty-five I usually read the mass circulation books that everybody was talking about. I remember reading a book by Stewart Alsop and was intrigued by him, and there were some others. But Tom Wolfe’s book, Bonfire of the Vanities , to me was just so real. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to finish it. In 1986 Warren Burger [the chief justice of the United States] had introduced me to a book called Miracle in Philadelphia, by Catherine Drinker Bowen. I was a member of a committee that Warren Burger headed on the bicentennial of the Constitution. He handed everybody this book, and I read it, and I loved it. [Bowen] was able to write about the Constitutional Convention in a way that I could understand. I just have gone crazy ever since then. I can’t explain it…
The first Booknotes program on April 2, 1989 featured former President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, talking about his book, The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the Twentieth Century. Here’s a sampling of some of the other authors and books from Booknotes’ first year:
Sunday, May 7, 1989
Col. David Hackworth, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior,
Sunday, June 4, 1989
James MacGregor Burns, The Crosswinds of Freedom
Sunday, June 18, 1989
U. S. Senator Robert Byrd, The Senate: 1789-1989,
Sunday, June 25, 1989
Elizabeth Colton, The Jackson Phenomenon: The Man, The Power, The Message
Sunday, July 23, 1989
Jeanne Simon, Codename: Scarlett—Life on the Campaign Trail by the Wife of a Presidential Candidate.
Sunday, August 27, 1989
Jack Germond, Jules Witcover, Whose Broad Stripes & Bright Stars—The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency 1988.
Sunday, September 10, 1989
Thomas Friedman, From Beirut to Jerusalem
Sunday, October 15, 1989
Harrison Salisbury, Tiananmen Diary: Thirteen Days in June
Sunday, October 29, 1989
Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
Sunday, November 19, 1989
Robin Wright, In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade
Sunday, March 25, 1990
Former U.S. Senator James Abourezk, Advise and Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate.
Sunday, May 6, 1990
Morley Safer, Flashbacks On Returning to Vietnam.
May 1990: CBS newsman Morley Safer being interviewed by Brian Lamb on “Booknotes."
Booknotes, of course wasn’t all Lamb did. He still had time for other interviews, some under the rubric: “The Life and Career of…” In June 1989, for example, he interviewed Eric Sevareid, the veteran broadcast journalist who had worked at CBS since 1939, an original member of Edward R. Murrow’s news team. “The Life and Career of Howard K. Smith,” an ABC newsman, was another in this vein. Booknotes, in any case, would become one of C-SPAN’s most important shows, and one where C-SPAN’s audience became most familiar with Brian Lamb and his style. The show would run for more than 15 years and involve some 800 interviews. More on Booknotes and its C-SPAN progeny a bit later; now back to C-SPAN’s history in the 1990s.
June 1990: Brian Lamb & John J. Rigas of Adelphi Communications, Inc., celebrating C-SPAN’s 50 millionth household. Cable Center photo.
By June 1990, C-SPAN celebrated the addition of its 50 millionth household to its audience. Brian Lamb is shown at right with John J. Rigas of the Adelphi Communications with a cake celebrating the milestone. Adelphi at the time was among the largest cable TV companies in the United States.
C-SPAN continued to break new ground with its programming. In 1990-91, it gained notice for attaching lapel microphones to campaigning presidential candidates, following them around for hours at a time, documenting both the drama and mundane nature of running for office. In early 1991, with the outbreak of Gulf War, C-SPAN 2 reported a spike of 9.3 million new subscribers and the addition of 240 cable systems as congressional debate on the use of military force began.
By 1992, it began covering its fourth presidential campaign, then reaching some 55 million cable households. Established journalists in Washington by then were singing its praises. The late Tim Russert, former NBC Vice President and Bureau Chief called C-SPAN “the video resource of record.” Chuck Lewis, then Washington Bureau Chief of Hearst newspapers, praised C-SPAN as a “terrific concept that brings us ‘inside-the-Beltway’ types smack into reality with the public outside of Washington.” C-SPAN also took its show on the road in 1993, launching the C-SPAN bus with a production team that would travel the country, covering local events, visiting schools and more, generating local press as it did.
1996: One of the first books exploring C-SPAN’s creation and impact is published, “The C-SPAN Revolution,” by Stephen Frantzich and John Sullivan.
In 1994, at its 15th anniversary, C-SPAN launched a series of re-enactments of the seven historic Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, which were televised from August to October in the Illinois communities where they originally took place. Back in Congress, meanwhile, the Republicans became the majority in the House after the fall elections of 1994, making New Gingrich their speaker. C-SPAN cameras that year also captured some humorous moments, such as “Saturday Night Live” comedian Chris Farley’s special appearance impersonating Newt Gingrich in his presence at a Republican congressional caucus meeting. Among embarrassing moments for C-SPAN’s live and unedited coverage in 1996, which then extended to certain social events, was a raunchy performance by a radio talk show host Don Imus at the Radio & Television Correspondents Dinner in which Imus insulted the President and First Lady, among others.
In October 1996, one of the first outside books on the C-SPAN experience appeared – The C-SPAN Revolution – written by Stephen Frantzich and John Sullivan, which examines the history and inside politics of setting up C-SPAN on Capitol Hill, how that coverage affected the inside-the-beltway game of politics, as well as the relationship with voters and those beyond Washington. C-SPAN by the mid-1990s had become the national public affairs network that Lamb had envisioned from the start. Its Booknotes and history components, among others, were also substantial elements by then. In 1998, Lamb would explain that House and Senate floor debate then amounted to “between ten and fifteen percent of what C-SPAN offers…in a year’s time.” He also noted, “we own 45 cameras, and now we go all over the world, showing different events … in the public affairs arena, not in the news business.” C-SPAN, he emphasized was “not in the news business and never wanted to be in the news business,” as there were lots of people in the news business. “There’s no one else in public affairs business,” he said.
In September 1998, “Book TV” was added to C-SPAN 2 to provide more book-related programming. Click to visit BookTV.org.
By 1999, Booknotes, then in its tenth year, had established quite a following. C-SPAN, in fact, then created additional book-related programing with BookTV, a program that would expand the network’s coverage of non-fiction books, authors, and related events to 48 hours every weekend on C-SPAN 2. When asked about why Book TV was launched, Lamb explained:
…Well, there are a number of reasons… One, there was the word-of-mouth success of Booknotes, then a five-hour-a-week edition a couple years ago called “About Books,” and then the full 48 hours of Book TV. There was not much more thought given to it than that. People just liked it. We got a lot of feedback from it.
Secondly, …there is a $25 billion-a-year business in the book industry. There are over 1,000 superstores and 13,000 independent bookstores in the United States. It matters out there to somebody, and nobody else is doing anything more than short spots on television…
Oct 2006: Author David Cannadine appeared on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” from the Strand Book Store in New York City for his biography, “Mellon: An American Life.” Click to view.
Book TV guests are often not nationally-known authors, and C-SPAN cameras cover authors presenting their work at local book stores and other venues all over the country.
In mid-January 2001, for example, Nick Mangieri, a 72 year-old self-published author with two autobiographical books about his days as a crusading cop – Broken Badge and Frozen Shield – appeared at a Barnes & Noble store in Newport News, Virginia for a book discussion covered by C-SPAN. Hundreds of other authors have appeared on BookTV programs at bookstores throughout the country.
C-SPAN also created other programming in 1999, launching its “American Presidents” series in March that year, a series with three-hour treatments of each of the nation’s 41 presidents. Aaron Barnhart of the Knight Ridder/Tribune news group wrote of that show: “If you want to catch TV’s most captivating series this summer, don’t look to HBO. Don’t look to MTV. Look to C-SPAN[’s]… ‘American Presidents: Life Portraits.’” Aside from its obvious value to history buffs, Barnhart observed, “what makes ‘American Presidents’ so compelling are the unexpected, often contentious debates that take place between the program’s featured historians and its viewers who call in and offer very different takes on the American presidents….”
C-SPAN executive v.p., Susan Swain, shown hosting a C-SPAN 3 “American History TV” program. Click to view.
By August 2000, some 28.5 million people said they watched C-SPAN programming each week, a number that had grown 17 percent over 1996 levels. By late January 2001, C-SPAN 3 had been added to the network, offering more live coverage of national public policy and related events during the week. C-SPAN 3 would later add 48 hours of “American History TV” on the weekends, but not until January 2011.
Brian Lamb, meanwhile, was still going strong with his one-on-one author interviews at Booknotes. By December 2004, however, he decided to end that program and try something different. Through 15 years of Booknotes, however, Lamb had rendered something of an Iron Man, Lou Gehrig performance, reading 800 books, most on his own time, and never missing a single Sunday night, for 52 weeks every one of those years. His guests had ranged from Dr. Cornel West, to former President Richard Nixon, New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, and many others. Brian Lamb’s Booknotes program, which ran for 15 years, has been described fondly as “a little piece of television sanity.” Guest authors weren’t determined by complicated formula, but rather by Lamb’s belief they would be of interest to his audience, have something novel to say, or have insight or information the public should know about. Lamb avoided celebrity-type books on his show, believing them to be commercially motivated, and also covered extensively elsewhere. Politicians who wrote books, or had them ghost written, were also avoided, as these were seen as campaign vehicles. Lamb’s fans, meanwhile, would describe his Booknotes show as “a little piece of television sanity.” His interview method was guided by the basic journalism questions of who, what, when, where, why and how. He would also ask his author guests: How do you work?, Where do your work?, Who are your influences?, and others in that vein. His goal was to give the author plenty of time and room to answer – and keep himself out of the picture. Most of a Booknotes hour was filled with the author talking, not Lamb.
C-SPAN's "Q&A" show logo.
After Booknotes ended, Lamb began hosting a new program titled “Q&A,” which featured interviews with notable figures from politics, technology, education, and the media, as well as authors and historians. Q&A premiered in mid-December 2004. Among early guests were Fox News president Roger Ailes, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson. Other guests have included former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, and others. When it comes to his Q&A guests, Lamb follows his instincts mostly, just as he did with Booknotes.
NBC’s Brian Williams was among early guests interviewed on Brian Lamb’s “Q&A show.
In his Q&A session with Brian Williams, C-SPAN cameras went to the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center for the show. Williams was interviewed two days before he was to begin as anchor of NBC News following the retirement of Tom Brokaw. With Lamb asking the questions, Williams talked about his childhood, his early interest in politics and history, and his collection of political memorabilia, and that like Lamb, he had an interest in presidential history and was writing a book about the death of President Garfield. During the interview, Williams also discussed his internship in the Carter White House, his political leanings, his love of books, and the rigors of the thirty-minute television news show.
Lamb’s guests on his Q&A show were not then, and still to this writing, all well-known faces like Williams, as he continued seeking out those with novel stories. In 2006, for example, he interviewed Adonal Foyle, a basketball player with San Francisco’s Golden State Warriors. Foyle also happened to be an interesting America political player, though not in the conventional sense. He is the founder, President, and primary funder of Democracy Matters, a nonprofit foundation that focuses on grass-roots, pro-democracy reforms. But Foyle is also a native of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, can’t vote in America. Still, his foundation focuses on increasing voter participation and leveling America’s political playing field. Foyle has spent millions of his own money on the foundation, part of his effort to return the favor of his good fortune in America. That’s the kind of guest Lamb loves to have on his show, an outsider tweaking the power centers.
Historian David McCullough being interviewed on “Q&A,” May 2011, for his book, “The Greater Journey.” Click to view.
Lamb’s guests over more than 30 years have come from the left, right, center, and sometimes a few that are entirely off the charts. He does acknowledge a favorite category, however, as he allowed in one interview. “I really like the historians,” he told Ronald Kessler in 2008. “Richard Norton Smith, Robert Caro, Doug Brinkley, David McCullough, and Harold Holzer. They are resourceful; they do primary source work; they are engaging; and they know something.” In his tenure at C-SPAN, Lamb has become something of American historian in his own right, and is a keen student of American presidential history. He has also been an instigator/architect of several C-SPAN history programs and series, some of which have traveled off-site to various universities, institutes, presidential homes, and other venues for their filming and/or broadcast.
U.S. News & World Report caricature of Brian Lamb seeking Supreme Court access.
Back at C-SPAN, meanwhile, Lamb has continued to fight more battles for open government. In April 2009, for example, he was fighting to expand C-SPAN’s reach to federal courts and closed-door press events. A big target remains the U.S. Supreme Court and also some bastions of professional journalism that remain closed to cameras, such as the annual Gridiron gathering of journalists.
In its own shop, however, C-SPAN has been attuned to the web and the use of the social media. In 2007, it changed its copyright policy to allow online posting of its videos. In 2009, Twitter users began submitting questions live to C-SPAN programs. In January 2011, C-SPAN’s Facebook page added live streaming.
Kudos for Brian
Brian Lamb has been collecting kudos for sometime now – from serious readers, policy analysts, media pundits, politicians, publishers, and just plain old everyday folks who have acknowledged his contribution to their better-informed worlds. Lamb has received all manner of awards and honors: the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate Award in 2002; the National Humanities Medal, the Harry S. Truman Good Neighbor Award, and The Media Institute’s Freedom of Speech Award – all in 2003; the Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award in 2004 from the American Historical Association–this one “for extraordinary contributions to the study, teaching, and public understanding of history.” In November 2007 at the White House, with President George Bush doing the honors, he received the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. The Medal’s citation reads in part: “…As the driving force behind the creation of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb has elevated our public debate and helped open up our government to citizens across the Nation….”
Stephen Frantzich’s 2008 biography, “Founding Father: How C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb Changed Politics in America.”
As more national recognition came Lamb’s way, it didn’t go to his head. When a biography about him was proposed, he protested, saying he didn’t think he was all that interesting. “I’m just too normal,” he said, “and normality seldom sells.” Still, he decided to co-operate with Stephen E. Frantzich a political science professor who had co-authored an earlier book, The C-SPAN Revolution. In May 2008, Founding Father: How C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb Changed Politics in America, was published by Rowman & Littlefield.
His alma mater, Purdue University, was one of the first to recognized him back in the mid-1980s with an honorary degree. Purdue also awarded him its Distinguished Alumni Award in 1987, and he has returned there occasionally for other events. In April 2011, Purdue’s communications department was renamed the Brian Lamb School of Communication. That fall, as part of the establishment of that new center, Lamb also did a Q&A session with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels at the university.
In October 2011, Lamb received the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media at a ceremony in South Dakota. Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today and the Freedom Foundation, and making the award, said in part: “For three decades, Brian Lamb and his colleagues have pulled back the curtain on our democratic system, resulting in a more informed electorate … The C-SPAN networks, created under Brian Lamb’s leadership, allow millions of interested citizens to be watchdogs of Washington through the fair, unfiltered and comprehensive coverage of government and the political process.”
“The Lamb Collection”
George Mason University
Brian Lamb taking a look at his own “book notes” at George Mason University exhibit.
In April 2011, Lamb donated his entire collection of books featured on the Booknotes series (1989-2004) to the rare books collection of George Mason University in Northern Virginia. The university is using the books to create an academic archive. At first glance, this may not seem to be all that significant. However, most of the books Lamb used on the show contain his personal marginalia and preparatory “reminders” and questions he used for each author interview — notes and questions that often fill the front and back blank pages of the books that Lamb read.
The Brian P. Lamb Booknotes Collection at the George Mason University Libraries contains the full set of the 801 books that Lamb read for his author interviews on the Booknotes show. The university celebrated the new acquisition with an exhibit and reception on September 21st, 2011. The exhibit, “Beyond the Book: An Exhibition of the Brian Lamb Booknotes Collection,” displayed a selection of the books showing their marginalia along with other interesting items found in the collection, as well as selected excerpts from Lamb’s interviews with various authors. The goal of the exhibit is to capture Lamb’s engagement with the books and the content of the interviews rathern than highlight the content of specific books. “What is so unique about this collection,” according to the George Mason Libraries’ description, “is that it lends insight into how Lamb structured his interviews and interpreted the different works. It’s truly a valuable resource for students and researchers who conduct interviews themselves.” A digital component of the exhibit can be viewed online.
In March 2012, when Lamb announced he was stepping down as CEO, there came a new round of praise, some of it quite thoughtful. Susan Milligan, a journalist at U.S. News & World Report, who in the early days, prior to internet and the 24/7 news cycle, remembered Lamb hosting weekly journalist roundtables, and how at 7:00 am on a Saturday he had already read a number of newspapers, including those of his journalist guests. But Milligan also noted how Lamb handled call-in viewers and the respectful tone he set:
Brian Lamb, professional, informed, and courteous, was a big part of the reason for the demeanor of the callers. Bipartisan doesn’t even begin to describe his approach. He listened to everyone, didn’t goad or insult viewers, and had the nonjudgmental expression that must have made him a phenomenal poker player….
Television news—or news and commentary—has acquired an aggressive and combative tone in our Attention Deficit Disorder political culture. Public relations officers at think tanks will report that their knowledgeable and erudite guests are not welcome on cable TV unless they are willing to get into a verbal joust with someone. The dialogue becomes less about the details of an issue and more of a Sharks versus Jets standoff, where the “liberal” or “conservative” moniker is assigned to a position not based on the substance itself, but on the people who espouse it. It reduces serious matters to cheap personality conflicts…
Brian Lamb and his network have never given in to that kind of marketing…
Brian Lamb at Purdue University during "Q&A" interview with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Sept 2011. Click to view video.
Editorials about Lamb also appeared in newspapers, magazines and at various websites. Editors at The Economist wrote, for example, “…he never violated the simplicity principle,” adding that “C-SPAN remained an island of sanity in a media world increasingly dominated by braying bigots.” In an earlier column, Los Angeles Times writer Andrew Malcolm has called Lamb “America’s Alistair Cooke.” On the web and in the blogosphere, more praise is found from some of Lamb’s most ardent and loyal fans. “[H]is intelligent oversight has kept C-SPAN as the only really truly fair and balanced network out there in TV land,” writes one. Another adds: “He is very much a demythologizer of political and media processes, and treats Joe Schmoe American with the same respect as he treats heads of state and Nobel laureates.” And there is lots more like this both online and elsewhere from Lamb’s fans and admirers.
It is clear that America is much better off for having had Brian Lamb of Lafayette, Indiana come to work in Washington, D.C. He became, in one sense, the Frank Capra/public affairs version of “Mr Smith Goes To Washington” – but in this case, the real thing, not the film version. If you’ve never seen one of Brian Lamb’s programs, there still time to catch him on his Q&A show every Sunday evening at 8 pm on C-SPAN.
For more stories at this website on Media & Society or Politics, please visit those category pages for thumbnail sketches of posted stories, or see the Home Page for additional choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle.
David Crook, “A One-Man Campaign for C-SPAN,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1982, p. H-1.
David Crook, “Video File: Brian Lamb Is Bullish on Outlook for C-SPAN; He Wants Network to Be a Neutral Conduit Between the Governing and the Governed,” Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1983, p. G-1.
T.R. Reid, “Congress: Best Little Soap Opera on Cable,” Washington Post, April 29, 1984, p. B-1.
“Profile of C-SPAN Book America’s Town Hall,” Brian Lamb and Panel at Washington Metropolitan Cable Club, Discussing Book (includes 7 minute staff video on book’s content and compilation), C-SpanVideo.org, June 22, 1988.
Ted Turner on cover of 9 August 1986 Time magazine, which said of his up-and-coming 24-hour news network: ‘...By any measure, CNN is in the big leagues of news.’
Ted Turner was vilified by the press in the late 1970s and early 1980s — called the “mouth from the South,” “Captain Outrageous,” “Terrible Ted,” and all sorts of other things. He was brash and outspoken, and not shy about touting his accomplishments. He could be boorish and offensive one moment, and the kindest, most generous man alive the next. To many, he was something of a puzzle; full of contradictions and unpredictable behavior. Yet by the early 1980s, Ted Turner was a bona fide success story and a man on the rise. In the 1980s-thru-1990s transformation of Big Media, Ted Turner became a central player; a maverick outsider taking on the Big Boys and holding his own, breaking new ground in the process.
Turner began his ascent from a family billboard business in Atlanta, Georgia, became a small cable TV operator, and then used satellite capability to make a local TV station a “superstation.” He rose quickly to become the near-equal of the major TV networks in less than a decade, coming from practically out of nowhere. Turner’s key invention would be CNN — the Cable News Network — which not only touched off a revolution in the news business, but also helped show the enormous potential of cable television generally. Earlier than most, Ted Turner saw clearly all the pieces on the chessboard, and had a strategy in mind to make major change. Perhaps more than any other single individual, Turner was responsible for pushing cable TV into the mainstream — both in America and globally. Turner’s ventures also spurred a gold rush among his competitors, media moguls, and other assorted entrepreneurs seeking to get in on the action. But earlier than most, Ted Turner saw clearly all the pieces on the chessboard, and had a strategy in mind to make major change. He envisioned how technology, public policy, and consumer interest might be aligned to capture a new kind of media synergy. But making that a reality was no cake walk for Turner. He faced naysayers and all manner of obstacles. But with tenacity and hard work – which Turner gave in full measure, despite a not-always-deserved playboy and care-free image — he made his mark, changing the way much of the world would use television, especially television news. Part of his story begins in the early 1960s.
Billboards to Television
In 1963, at the age of 24, after his father committed suicide, Ted Turner found himself suddenly in charge of the family billboard business. Turner Advertising, a regional business based in Atlanta, Georgia, was built by his father. Young Ted, from about the age of 12, had worked in the family business, learning the ropes from the bottom up. “I started as a bill poster,” he said in one interview, “constructing billboards and painting them and maintaining the billboards. I did that for about five years. Then, when I got to be about 17 years old, I put on a coat and tie and went out with our sales manager to learn sales.” He learned the business well. Becoming head of the company in 1963, he wanted to do an especially good job in his father’s memory. Saddled with debt when he first took over, he dug in and worked hard. By the end of the decade, the business was profitable and he had made it the largest outdoor advertising business in the southeast U.S. But it was about then that Ted Turner began to see something more. His billboard advertising clients were spending more of their money on radio and TV ads, not outdoor advertising. So Turner began looking in that direction as well.
Turner’s advisors worried when he used 2.5 million dollars to buy a money-losing TV station in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1970, he set his sights on a failing TV station in Atlanta — WJRJ, channel 17. At the time, the station was losing about $600,000 a year. WJRJ was a UHF station, UHF meaning “ultra high frequency,” then the second-class citizen of broadcast television. VHF, on the other hand, was where the big networks and their local affiliates were found, having sown up most of that broadcast spectrum with a handful of channels. But following WWII, there had been a glut of applications for new TV stations at the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). And it was then that the government set aside dozens of channels on the new UHF spectrum. This enabled independents, like Turner, to get a foothold in the business. Further, by 1962 Congress had also passed a law requiring that all TVs be equipped to receive both UHF and VHF channels. Turner saw opportunity, and he jumped in.
To the dismay of his financial advisors, Turner traded $2.5 million worth of his own company’s stock for title to the Atlanta UHF station. He also later bought another UHF station in Charlotte, North Carolina. Ted Turner was on his way in the television business. Still, UHF had it difficulties, was awkward for consumers to use, and wasn’t always the first choice of TV viewers. Turner by then had changed the name of his firm to Turner Communications Group, recasting his Atlanta TV station’s call letters to WTCG – also rumored to mean “watch this channel grow.” However, at first, Turner’s new UHF stations lost money. Undaunted, he kept buying up programming and broadcast rights to old movies and old TV re-runs to use on his stations.
WTCG: Music Video
& Comedy TV
Turner’s first TV station appears to have had an eclectic mix of programming in the early, pre-satellite 1970s. The station had some rough days and rough edges. It was the only station in Atlanta that still broadcast in black-and-white. Turner had trouble paying the bills there too, resorting to an on-air telethon to raise money, much like PBS does today. A competitor UHF station in Atlanta, WATL, was also a problem for a time. But Turner’s WTCG prevailed, helped in part by stealing a popular WATL music video show called The Now Explosion, a pre-MTV-like show that ran music videos, some pretty bad, all weekend long. Turner’s WTCG also may have been ahead of its time with its John Daly-like comedic TV, if only by accident, as the FCC required a news broadcast. So WTCG produced some humorous, satirical early-a.m. newscasts. Its 17 Update Early in the Morning, for example, featured straight-faced reporters along with comedic sidelines, including “The Unknown Newsman,” a co-anchor wearing a brown paper bag over his head. But WTCG’s bread-and-butter programming soon included lots of Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball, reruns of Star Trek, and Georgia Wrestling. And there were bigger and better things on the way.
Turner was also paying attention to what was going on in the new cable TV business. Then in its infancy, the pieces of that industry were coming together in the early 1970s. In 1972, the FCC ruled that cable TV operators could import distant signals. In New York, Time, Inc., the giant publishing company, had acquired a small Manhattan-based cable TV company which it later renamed Home Box Office. HBO thus became one of the first cable systems to transmit movies to subscribers over its cable network In 1975, RCA’s Satcom II satellite was launched and put into operation. Time-HBO was also the first to see the potential of linking satellite programming to its cable systems. But Ted Turner was also paying attention to these developments, as he later explained: “I read the broadcasting magazines, and they wrote several stories about Home Box Office, and they planned to go on the satellite with their pay movie service and try and get cable systems to sign up…” A week after he read that, Turner headed up to New York to meet with RCA. Turner soon used the FCC distant signal rule and the RCA satellite capacity for his Atlanta station. “That’s how we were able to beam our Atlanta station to homes throughout the South,” he would later explain. Still, even then, the established broadcast networks tried to squash Turner before he even started; they went to Congress stop him. But Turner fought back, lobbying Congress about the evils of network monopoly and he beat them. He also made what would prove to be an important programming purchase in January 1976: buying the Atlanta Braves professional baseball team for a price then estimated in $10-to-$12-million range. He would also buy the Atlanta Hawks basketball team the following year. Meanwhile, Turner’s new satellite-enabled Atlanta TV station had a new patina; it was now more than just a local UHF station. In fact, Ted Turner had invented something quite new; something that was would be called a “superstation.”
Ted Turner in Atlanta Stadium, February 1976, shortly after buying the Atlanta Braves baseball team.
In mid-December 1976, WTCG’s signal was first beamed by satellite to four cable providers beyond Atlanta – Grand Island, Nebraska; Newport News, Virginia; Troy, Alabama; and Newton, Kansas. Instantly, WTCG added 24,000 more households to its viewing audience. Thus, the “superstation” was born, with imitators soon to follow. Turner’s WTCG expanded its geographic reach over the next several years, first in the south, where WTCG’s telecasts of Atlanta Braves baseball and professional wrestling were popular, but eventually spreading across the entire nation. Ted Turner was now leading the basic cable revolution.
At first, Turner’s station ran old movies and old situation comedies like The Andy Griffith Show and Green Acres. But then in 1976 Turner acquired the Atlanta Braves professional baseball team and he soon began sending out a full-season roster of Braves games over his new superstation. Baseball broadcasting then was still pretty restricted to locally-telecast games mostly in a few big markets that had professional teams. As Turner recalled in a later interview:
“…Most of America only got a Saturday afternoon game on NBC, and all of a sudden, here was a complete slate of 150 baseball games, most of them in prime time.“Nielsen wouldn’t give us the ratings for several years. I had to threaten to sue them to rate us.” So people in Nebraska and North Dakota and South Dakota, Hawaii and Alaska could have a team to cheer for that they never had before. No, it was good programming. We carried wrestling, and people liked that. Wrestling, baseball, basketball and movies and some other sporting events that we could get our hands on. We had a very, very viable, popular network there.
And it eventually started making money. It took a long time. I was so poor for a long time. Nielsen wouldn’t give us the ratings for several years. I had to threaten to sue them to rate us….”
An “All News” Network
In late September 1975, Time’s HBO, linking satellite capability to cable systems, broadcast the famous “Thrilla in Manila” heavyweight championship fight between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali to its subscribers. It showcased the new global potential of television. In Atlanta, Ted Turner was also thinking about the power of cable’s new reach via satellite, and specifically about news. Recalls Turner:
“…In the 1970s, I became convinced that a 24-hour all-news network could make money, and perhaps even change the world. But when I invited two large media corporations to invest in the launch of CNN, they turned me down. I couldn’t believe it. Together we could have launched the network for a fraction of what it would have taken me alone; they had all the infrastructure, contacts, experience, knowledge. When no one would go in with me, I risked my personal wealth to start CNN.”
Ted Turner at launch of CNN, June 1980.
No conventional network would join Turner as they and their financiers thought the venture was just plain nuts. The Big Three broadcasters were each losing money producing just one news show per day. “It was a network that was kind of like its owner, Ted Turner,” author Robert Goldberg would later say of CNN. “It was a little ragged around the edges, but with grand, global ambition.” Turner himself would later say: “You know, it was a real good plan. It was a plan to conquer the world, but with ideas, not with weapons.” Adds New York writer Ken Auletta: “Turner wanted to shrink the world. He wanted Americans to understand the world, and not be isolationist, not be comfortable in our little cocoons.”
Turner was joined by some like-minded souls in his venture; people who wanted to be part of his fight. Among these was Bernard Shaw, a former ABC newsman who would become one of CNN’s first anchormen: “I wanted to twit the traditional networks. Those people at ABC, CBS, and NBC who said, this will not work, they are inept…. I wanted to join Ted, along with the other men and women at CNN, to prove those bastards wrong.”
In June 1980, Turner’s CNN, the Cable News Network, was formally launched, becoming the first 24-hour, all-news network. But initially, it wasn’t at all clear the network would fly. “Soon after our launch in 1980, our expenses were twice what we had expected and revenues half what we had projected,” Turner later explained. “Our losses were so high that our loans were called in. I refinanced at 18 percent interest, up from 9, and stayed just a step ahead of the bankers.” CNN began with 1.7 million subscribers, far less than projects. However, the station did attract a few advertisers, lining up two of the biggest, Procter & Gamble and General Foods.
CNN jumped in to cover all kinds of news events in its first year, from the 1980 Democratic and Republican presidential conventions just a few weeks after its launch, to the shooting death of the Beatles’ John Lennon that December. Not all of the coverage went smoothly, and some was disastrous, while CNN reporters and producers faced ridicule from news colleagues at other networks, some calling it the “Chicken Noodle Network.” Yet the value of CNN quickly became apparent, especially in breaking news. CNN was the first in March 1981 to report that President Reagan had in fact been hit during John Hinckley’s assassination attempt. It stayed on the air while ABC and CBS switched back to regular programming after telling their viewers, as was first believed, that the President was unhurt. CNN would go on to gain other firsts in breaking news, and their later gavel-to-gavel coverage of subsequent Republican and Democratic political conventions would also win them praise.
WTBS Makes Money
Changing look at the logo for Ted Turner’s WTBS Atlanta ‘superstation’ over the years, 1979-2004.
Meanwhile, Turner’s Atlanta-based superstation – now renamed WTBS to conform with the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) corporate moniker – was beginning to make money. In 1981 it had reaped $18 million in profits and was projecting double that for the following year. This cash flow was helping sustain the new CNN venture. TBS was doing well in advertising; overall it had taken in about half of the entire cable industry’s advertising revenues during 1981-82, or roughly more than $250 million for those two years. Most of TBS’ revenue were being generated by the WTBS superstation, then reaching about 26 million homes. The Braves games, along with 4,200 movies under license, gave WTBS a reliable source of programming. WTBS had also become a national marketplace for a third, fourth, or fifth TV show syndications. Still, Turner was spending money on programming. In 1982, TBS spent more than $20 million to make or acquire programming, including a Jacques Cousteau series on the Amazon. But by 1982, TBS was attracting the interest of other media players, as Westinghouse launched a takeover attempt. Back in Atlanta, Turner added a second channel to his new network in January 1982 – CNN Headline News – while fending off Westinghouse. CNN was soon attracting more subscribers and more viewers. By August 1982 Time magazine would observe:
…Turner has shown that there is a substantial and eager audience for news all the time, not just in the confined hours at the beginning and end of the workday. In two years his 24-hour-a-day service has grown to …13.9 million households…. Editorially, it scoops the Big Three networks on a fair share of stories. By any measure, CNN is in the big leagues of news.
Each of the Big Three broadcast networks by this time — ABC, CBS and NBC – had started some kind of cable news unit, either late night or with other partners, acknowledging that Turner had shown there was an audience for round-the-clock news.“I was cable before cable was cool.” – Ted Turner, May 1982. But these ventures were playing catch-up. Turner had the loyalty of many cable-system clients around the country, and even a healthy number of local broadcast stations who were affiliates of the Big Three. In May 1982, at the National Cable Television Association convention in Las Vegas, Turner held a big reception for the cable-system owners where he was warmly received. At this gathering, Turner also ran a bit of campaign to toot his own horn. A giant 3-D billboard of himself playing the guitar carried the tag line: “I was cable before cable was cool,” a line paraphrased from a country music song, also emblazoned on placards and buttons at the Las Vegas reception. But Ted Turner had more big plans to come.
August 1983: The New York Times reports on Turner’s rise in a Sunday, business section feature.
“As soon as I earn me my billion dollars,” he later told Time magazine in August 1982, “I am going to buy a network. I am going to find the new Frank Capra and set him to making movies. I can quit whenever I want to. I am not worried about what people think. But I am the right man in the right place at the right time – not me alone, but all the people who think the world can be brought together by telecommunications.”
Turner and his new CNN were increasingly viewed as successful. By August 1983, the New York Times ran a front-page business-section story in a Sunday edition entitled, “Television’s ‘Bad Boy’ Makes Good,” reporting on CNN’s first profits. Ted Turner, however, was a man not easily defined; and in many ways, was a study in contradictions.
Ted Growing Up
Robert Edward “Ted” Turner III was born November 1938 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His family moved to Savannah, Georgia when he was nine, and young Ted was soon sent to the Georgia Military Academy. As a schoolboy, he did take well to football, basketball or baseball, though he tried them all. At home he was close to his father, a tough taskmaster who taught Ted business principles through living, even charging him rent during summer vacations. At graduation from his second military academy, the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., his father helped young Ted buy – partly with all of Ted’s hard-earned savings – a Lightning-class sailboat, a passion he had already picked up. Ted had dreams of the U.S. Naval Academy, but his father wanted an Ivy League education for his son. Turner had been scarred in his teens by the loss of his younger sister, Mary Jane, taken in a painful fight with a Lupus disease that causes the body to make antibodies against its own tissues. Unable to get into Harvard, Ted went to Brown and chose to study the Greek classics which outraged his father, “a practical man,” repulsed by Ted’s choice. A switch to an economics major soon followed. But Ted left Brown, suspended in 1960 for having a female in his room, a second infraction involving women. He then dropped out, went to Florida for a time, but soon returned to Georgia to join his father in the billboard business.
In his teens, Turner had been scarred by the loss of his younger sister, Mary Jane, stricken with a lupus disease that causes the body to make antibodies against its own tissues. Ted was about 15 at the time and his sister, three years younger. The disease tormented her, ravaging her nervous system to the point where, reportedly, carpenters were brought in to pad her room. She screamed, “God, let me die, let me die!” Turner later told Time: “She was sweet as a little button, she worshiped the ground I walked on, and I loved her. A horrible illness.” Then came his father’s death.
Ed Turner had become a millionaire by the time young Ted, then in his 20s, came home to work in the family billboard trade. But his father, unhappy with the business, signed an agreement to sell his company’s newly acquired Atlanta division. Then, at the age of 53, Ed Turner retreated to his South Carolina plantation in March 1963 and shot himself. Young Ted, then 24, immersed himself in the business, fighting ferociously to undo the deal his father had made to sell his company’s assets. Ted played hardball with the would-be owners. He threatened to “build billboards in front of theirs” among other tactics to get what he wanted. In a short time the business was his, and it became a huge success, which he later spun off as he dove into cable television.
Ted Turner on the July 4th 1977 cover of Sports Illustrated.
During the 1970s, Turner also used his energies to pursue other interests, world-class sailing among them. He sailed in hundreds of races all over the globe and won the Americas Cup in 1977. Turner had grown up with sail boats, becoming known for taking risks on the water, dubbed “the capsize kid.” And he didn’t win, at first. “In the first eight years that I raced sailboats, I never won,” Turner later explained. “I was sailing at Savannah Yacht Club in Savannah, Georgia, and I never won a club championship. I was second almost all the time, but I never won once in eight years. And then in my ninth year of racing, I went to college and started racing there, and all the work that I had done — because those first eight years, I wasn’t really losing. I was learning how to win…” Turner entered the America’s Cup race in 1974 but lost. In 1977, he entered again with his yacht, Courageous. This yacht was older and less technically advanced than others in the race, but Turner defeated his competitors, earning the right to defend the cup against the world’s challengers. The final event was held in rough seas, but Turner prevailed.
1977 America's Cup victor.
In the midst of his triumphs at sea, Turner’s public behavior was subjected to considerable press attention, and he played the part, sometimes to excess and embarrassment. Sportswriters, seizing on his outspoken personality, lampooned him as “the mouth from the South.” But for all his care-free ways and seeming buffoonery, Turner would soon show the sailing world and beyond that he was made of something more; that he had a core determination and courage that few of his sailing or other peers had.
Ted Turner in 1981 Cutty Sark ad.
In 1979, he entered a newer boat, the Tenacious, in the U.K.’s Fastnet race, a four-day ocean event. The Fastnet course runs from Plymouth, England, around Fastnet Rock off the coast of Ireland, and back again. Turner’s was one of 302 boats to enter the race that year. However, in mid-race a horrendous storm broke out, capsizing and sinking numerous boats, taking 19 lives. Tenacious too, appeared to be doomed, swamped by high seas with 40-foot waves. But Turner and crew ran full out through the gale. Tenacious came in first of the 92 boats that completed the course. The 1979 Fastnet remains one of the deadliest ocean races in history, and Turner’s victory there has become legend. The association of sailing journalists named Turner Yachtsman of the Year three times, consecutively, a unique honor. In 1981, whiskey maker Cutty-Sark featured Turner in sailing mode in one of its magazine ads. “Here’s to Gut Feeling And Those Who Still Follow Them,” said the ad’s headline, also offering a short bio of Turner’s risk-taking accomplishments then to date.
But it was Turner’s businesses that consumed most of his time, even to the neglect of his second marriage and two children from a previous marriage. As a young owner of the family billboard business, and as he began building his cable TV empire, Turner became a workaholic. In a 2007 interview he did with the Academy of American Achievement in Washington, Turner recounted a bit of his work habit:
“…[F]or 20 years, I lived at my office… I lived on a couch in my office for ten years, and then luckily, I got wealthy enough to build a little penthouse on the roof — 700 square feet — and I moved up there. It was a lot nicer. I just walked up the stairs one floor. …For 20 years, I lived at my office… – Ted Turner on his work habit. My office was on the top floor, and I just walked up to go to bed, and that way, I had another hour to work every day, because when I walked downstairs, I was instantly in my office without having to fight traffic. So I was able to work an hour. I went to the games at night, and I’d get home at 11:00. I’d come back in the office, and I was right there: 7:00 when I woke up, to be at work at 8:00. I worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. I liked it. I mean almost. Sometimes I’d go home to see my wife and family. I still live in my office. I live up above in a penthouse over my office building in Atlanta. The restaurant is down on the ground floor. So if I’m hungry, I just go down to the restaurant and eat and get a meal and then go back up, and I’m right there.”
Key assets for Turner in the 1980s were the MGM film & cartoon libraries he acquired, which helped provided programming for TNT & Cartoon networks.
In 1984, Turner attempted to establish a music channel to compete with MTV, called the Cable Music Channel, which was a short-lived venture, but later had some influence on VH-1. He also flirted with making a bid for ESPN, the all-sports cable network. But in 1985, he made an all-out attempt to acquire CBS, a major battle that ultimately failed. Turner would return to his CBS quest again, some years later. However, in 1986, Turner scored big with the $1.5 billion purchase of the legendary but struggling Hollywood film studio MGM (plus United Aritists which had merged with MGM). He made the deal with investor Kirk Kerkorian. Turner’s bankers, however, refused to back him concerned about an already heavy debt load at his companies. So he then sold much of the deal back to Kerkorian, with some important exceptions. Turner held onto MGM’s film library, the entire RKO library, and some United Artists television programs – entertainment assets that would help in Turner’s next ventures.
When boycotts threatend the Olympic Games, Turner launched the Goodwill Games in 1986.
Still, at the time of the deal, even many of Turner’s own board members thought he was buying played-out assets that would not be attractive to advertisers or viewers. “But Turner knew he had bought an inventory of cultural icons,” explains media analyst and author Michael J. Wolf, “classic movie stars in beloved movies: Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life, Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind, and Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. He was simply expediting the migration of preexisting entertainment content onto a new platform: advertiser-supported cable.”
By 1987, more than 50 percent of U.S. households were wired for cable TV. In 1988, Turner founded TNT, the Turner Network Television channel. He introduced the channel with a special broadcast of Gone With the Wind. TNT, at least initially, was a vehicle for older movies and television shows, but slowly began to add original programming and newer reruns. TNT also used sports broadcasts and pro wrestling to attract a broader audience, and would later add NASCAR and NBA programming.
Ted Turner & Jane Fonda at Braves vs. Cardinals NLCS game, October 1996.
By the end of the 1980s, Ted Turner was the nation’s largest supplier of programming to cable systems, with sales climbing beyond $1 billion. CNN by then was reaching 53.8 million homes in the U.S. and another six million abroad. Turner himself was listed by Forbes magazine at #19 on its 1989 list of the “400 Richest Americans” with estimated wealth of $1.76 billion. But Turner Broadcasting by then was still carrying a sizeable amount of debt, with interest payments of $200 million a year, taking 20 percent of annual revenues. And to help ease the debt load, a portion of Turner Broadcasting stock became held by rival cable systems, among them, TCI and Time-Warner, then the top two cable operators. Although Turner still held 55 percent of Turner Broadcasting’s voting stock, the presence of TCI and Time-Warner on his board would have a tempering effect on Turner’s actions.
Through the early 1990s – in addition to marrying actress Jane Fonda in 1991 – Turner continued his business expansion, adding new cable channels. In 1992, Turner’s MGM library, which included the cartoon libraries of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies – plus the acquisition of another cartoon maker, Hanna-Barbera Productions – became the basis of the Cartoon Network. In 1993, TBS merged with Castle Rock and New Line movie studios. Castle Rock had produced films such as: In the Line of Fire, A Few Good Men, City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally, as well as the popular Seinfeld television series. In 1994, the Turner Classic Movie (TCM) channel came next, primarily to broadcast the older Warner Brothers, RKO, and MGM libraries.
Cable News Network logo.
CNN, Big Time
CNN meanwhile was growing by leaps and bounds. CNN covered worldwide news as it unfolded, and by the late 1980s was a leader in covering events like Poland’s Solidarity movement, the Space Challenger disaster of 1986, China’s Tiananmen Square uprising in June 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall in December 1989. But one of CNN’s biggest coups was its live, at-the-battlefront coverage of the first Gulf War in 1991. CNN was the only news outlet with the ability to communicate from inside Iraq during the initial hours of the American bombing campaign, with live reports from CNN’s Bernard Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett. Ted Turner later recounted his reaction to the coverage:
“… It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I knew what was coming. We knew that the attack was coming imminently because we had been warned by the State Department. Even the President called the president of the network and strongly recommended that we get our people out of Baghdad, but I made the decision that — as long as they would volunteer to stay — that they could stay. “This is the greatest scoop in the history of journal- ism!” -Ted Turner on CNN’s live Gulf War coverage, 1991. We were freedom of the press, we were going to get the story. I was in Jane Fonda’s room. She was working, and I had the afternoon off, and it was, I don’t know, about 5:00 or 6 o’clock East Coast time and two o’clock West Coast, and I was watching CNN, and the war started. I flipped over to KCBS and Dan Rather was in the studio talking, and I flipped over to NBC and Tom Brokaw was in the studio talking, and I flipped over to ABC and Peter Jennings was in the studio talking, and I flipped over to CNN, and the tracer bullets were going and the rockets were getting shot down, and I said, ‘Yippee! This is the greatest scoop in the history of journalism!’ And it still is the greatest scoop, and one network had the start of the war from behind enemy lines…”
CNN, in fact, soon became a daily staple for most government leaders, and even became a go-between in some cases of diplomacy. Even the Pope’s counsels consulted the channel, reported Time magazine, “to know what to pray for.” In January 1992, a major recognition came for Turner when Time magazine placed him and his network on the cover of its “Man of the Year” issue. CNN’s global growth meanwhile, continued to climb. By 1995, it had 156 million subscribers in 140 countries.
Time magazine’s ‘Man of the Year’ edition, January 6, 1992, featuring Ted Turner & CNN – ‘History as it Happens’.
The Turner empire was now the equal of – and in some ways surpassed – the broadcast networks. Turner had become a player among the media giants and he soon renewed his quest to own some of their assets. He still harbored a desire to own one of the major TV networks and/or a Hollywood studio. His interest in acquiring CBS was still very much alive. But he was also pursuing other possibilities. In 1994, he began talks with NBC about a possible alliance or merger. But his own board blocked him; specifically, Time-Warner, one of his biggest investors and a rival bidder for NBC. “They’re holding me back, and it just isn’t right,” said Turner, during that fight. “I want to be able to play in the big game,” he added. “I don’t want to be pushed around anymore.” Then in August 1995, after Westinghouse made a $5.4 bid for CBS, Turner sought to raise funds to make a run at CBS. Among those he talked with at that time was Bill Gates at Microsoft. Gates and Turner also discussed a possible joint venture in which Turner’s library of movies and its other news and entertainment programming might be used for CD-ROM products and other on-line services by Microsoft. Turner was also then considering another option: buying King World Productions, distributor of TV shows such as “Oprah Winfrey” and “Jeopardy.” King World had cash that Turner could use in a CBS bid, but once again, Turner’s board said no.
In the media business that summer, it was a crazy time. All the major players, it seemed, were sizing up each other; big deals were flying everywhere. Disney that August had become the world’s largest media company after it acquired Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion. And soon thereafter, the ground shifted for Turner as well as the Big Media sights were turned on Turner Broadcasting.
Time Warner – the media giant that was itself created in the 1989 merger of Time, Inc. and Warner Communications – had been eyeing Turner Broadcasting for some time. Already holding a board seat at Turner Broadcasting, Time-Warner had blocked Turner from acquiring NBC. Gerald Levin, the CEO of Time-Warner, had been interested in owning Turner Broadcasting since the late 1980s. But after Disney upped the ante among big media players with its 1995 Cap Cities/ABC deal, Turner became even more attractive to Time-Warner.
Turner would become part of Time-Warner.
On Saturday, August 19th, 1995, Time-Warner’s Gerald Levin and his wife flew to Turner’s Montana ranch for lunch. There Jane Fonda met them at the local airport, and by the time the day ended, the basic outline of the deal was in place. Time-Warner would offer about $35 a share for TBS stock, which at the time had been trading at around $24, bringing a premium to TBS stockholders. Turner would become vice-chairman of the new operation. On August 30th, when the first news reports of the $8.5 billion deal were reported, the size of the new combined entity was striking. It would be the world’s largest media company, eclipsing the weeks-earlier Disney/Cap Cities/ABC deal. The Time-Warner/Turner combination would have revenue of $18.7 billion as compared to $16.4 billion for Disney/Cap Cities. Time-Warner/Turner would become a major entertainment colossus, pairing Turner’s CNN, TBS, TNT and Cartoon networks with Time-Warner’s sprawling interests in publishing, music, cable systems, HBO, and film production.
Sept 1995: Ted Turner with Time-Warner chairman Gerald Levin as the two men held a press conference in New York on their planned merger. Background panels display the logos of the various Turner and Time-Warner companies that would come together in the new media giant.
Still, some wondered why Ted Turner would make the deal, or that he would be comfortable as Vice-Chairman after years of being the guy in charge. Others, however, saw a less frenetic Turner and one with new interests. “Do not discount the influence of Jane Fonda,” explained a former Turner confidant to Time magazine in September 1995. “There is no question she has mellowed him. His blood pressure is down. He’s closer to his children than before. He dresses better. He leaves the running of the business to his team so he can do his projects: the women’s movement, the environment and raising buffalo. He spends only two or three days a month at TBS. Otherwise, he is out buying the West.” Turner by then had become a major U. S. landowner, with property in Montana, New Mexico and elsewhere. Yet the media business was still a major part of who he was. But some wondered if his reduced role at Time-Warner would be enough. For the next few years, Turner became an active player in the Time-Warner world – but no less controversial.
“Ted’s Excellent Idea”
As the Time-Warner deal was being completed, Ted Turner continued to speak his mind, typically with controversy, and sometimes with beneficial results. In an August 1996 telephone conversation with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd – which she turned into a column titled “Ted’s Excellent Idea” –Turner’s idea for a list of the biggest givers appeared in the New York Times. Turner suggested there be list for those who gave away the most money, rather than lists like that of the Forbes 400, which identified the richest 400 Americans. “That list is destroying our country!,” Turner told Dowd. “These new super-rich won’t loosen up their wads because they’re afraid they’ll reduce their net worth and go down on the list. That’s their Super Bowl.” Turner told Dowd that he had talked with both Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, the two richest men in the country, “and they would be inclined to give more if there was a list of who did the giving,” said Turner. “With a billion dollars,” he said, “you can build a whole university.” Ted Turner would later follow his own advice, announcing a $1 billion gift to the United Nations in September 1997, at the time, the largest such gift ever. Slate also took Turner up on his suggestion and began a list of biggest givers in December 1996. Fortune began a list in 1997. [ And later, in mid-2010, billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates began "The Giving Pledge," aimed at other billionaires pledging to give away much of their wealth to philanthropic causes over time. Ted Turner was among the first to join. ]
Richard Hack’s 2003 book covers the battles between Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch.
Ted vs. Rupert
Meanwhile, back in the mid-1990s, from his new perch at Time-Warner, Ted Turner ignited a war of words with another media mogul – Rupert Murdoch, head of the up-and-coming Fox Network. At one point Turner boasted that Time-Warner would squash Murdoch in the media wars. By October 1996 Murdoch had invested more than $100 million in the Fox News Channel – much of it on cable operators to distribute the program to millions of homes. Time-Warner declined to carry the Fox channel on its New York City cable system, bringing the dispute to the fore in the New York media. Murdoch had long criticized CNN for its “liberal” news coverage. Back-and-forth news stories on the squabble continued through 1996 and 1997. At one point, Turner even challenged Murdoch to a Las Vegas boxing bout, in which the loser would have to leave the country. Murdoch declined. But in June 1997 Time-Warner agreed to carry Fox News on its cable system and provide Fox access to other Time-Warner systems as well. However, the Turner-Murdoch feud surfaced again in 1998 when Murdoch acquired the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team and Turner, a team owner, sought to block Murdoch. Murdoch’s New York Post meanwhile, in later stories covering CNN layoffs in 2000 and 2001, included illustrations that mocked CNN as the “Cheap News Network” and “Cruel News Network.” However, some years later, Murdock and Turner called a truce after Turner invited Murdock to lunch where they reportedly buried the hatchet. But in his business career, Ted Turner had other problems that came with the changing landscape of Big Media in the year 2000.
AOL Time-Warner Deal
January 2000: Steve Case, Gerald Levin and Ted Turner at announcement of the AOL/Time-Warner merger.
On January 10, 2000, Time-Warner announced plans to merge with then internet giant America Online (AOL), a colossal deal then ballyhooed as a game changer on the fast-moving front of internet/big media business synergies. Ted Turner became an enthusiastic supporter of the merger when it first occurred. But soon, the long knives came out, and Ted Turner was sent to the sidelines. He remained on the company’s board of directors and kept his title of vice chairman, but AOL Time Warner head Gerald Levin took away Turner’s control of Turner Broadcasting. That fall, Turner said, as later reported, “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would lose my job.”
Turner, The Enigma
They didn’t call him the “mouth from the South” without basis. Fact is, Ted Turner’s gaffes would get him into trouble more than a few times. But “warts and all” is part of the Ted Turner package. Wrote Time reporter William A. Henry, III in 1982: “If Turner were a character from Shakespeare – and he has that kind of incandescence – he would be in equal parts the nobly ambitious Prince Hal, the impulsively belligerent Hotspur and the comically self-indulgent Falstaff.” Henry also noted that Turner “has a genuine love of risk and an abiding faith in the value of competition, win or lose. He trusts his own vision and scorns prudent measures like market research. He loves to cast himself as a hapless crusader or starry-eyed underdog, and revels in emerging as the triumphant idiot savant.” Turner’s gaffes and offensive blunders are typically followed by apologies. He can’t help himself, it seems. But even when he’s wounding someone it’s often unintentional, made more out of bluntness than malice. For there is a core decency in Ted Turner; he is a well-intentioned soul trying to make a difference and wanting approval for the effort.
Yet in some ways, Ted Turner was his own worst enemy. Not everyone, it turns out, felt comfortable with him as a business associate, especially given his penchant for unguardedly speaking his mind. His occasional gaffes may have contributed to his being shunted aside in the aftermath of the AOL deal. In a March 2000, Turner attended a meeting with CNN staffers that included some Catholic employees who had ash marks on their foreheads in observance of Ash Wednesday. Turner at first thought the ash marks were dust and grime on those then covering the Seattle earthquake. But then he remembered it was Ash Wednesday and said, “I realize you’re just Jesus freaks.” Then he added, “shouldn’t you guys be working for Fox?”, in reference to the conservative Fox News Channel. Turner later apologized for the remarks, but they were reported by the Fox News Channel and the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post. Some Catholic groups reacted angrily while AOL officials got their first dose of the free-swinging Ted Turner.
Earlier in his career at Time-Warner, Turner had also made remarks many considered offensive: calling Christianity “a religion for losers;” making a derogatory remark about Poles and the Pope; citing the 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult suicides of 39 people as “a way to get rid of a few nuts;” and calling opponents of abortion “bozos.” Said one company official about Turner’s penchant for insult: “Look, with Ted you get a lot of great, big thoughts. You get a great spirit, and you get a really smart guy. But you also get somebody who from time to time says whatever he happens to be thinking at the moment. Whether he thinks it tomorrow isn’t necessarily the case, but that’s the whole package.” Others had observed the contradictions before; finding a guy, especially in his early years, who could be vulgar and abusive to his colleagues, yet deeply loyal to them; a womanizer who once bragged about his photographs of nude women, yet deplored the decline of family values and nudity and sex on film and TV; a man who was sometimes careful and guarded, but then embarrassingly blunt or crassly to-the-point.
Frustrated with his gradual loss of power at the new AOL Time-Warner and lack of a meaningful role, Ted Turner began looking for other ways to hedge his bets and use his still-creative energies. In June 2001, though still with AOL Time-Warner, he set up a new production company in Atlanta called Ted Turner Productions; a venture to produce feature-length films and documentaries.Turner later said that one of his biggest regrets was selling his empire to Time-Warner in 1996. In November that year, looking back on mistakes made, Turner told cable industry executives gathered in Anaheim, California that one of his biggest regrets was selling his empire to Time-Warner in 1996. Rather, he said, Turner Broadcasting should have acquired Time-Warner. Then, he said, “I could have fired Gerry Levin before he fired me.” Still, in late December 2001, Turner agreed to remain on the Time-Warner AOL board for a few more years. He was then the company’s largest individual stockholder, owning about 4 percent of its shares. As of August 2002, Turner held 138 million AOL Time-Warner shares. However, in the ensuing years he would lose billions of dollars in personal wealth during the high-tech bust as AOL Time-Warner deflated from its lofty values and unrealistic expectations.
Jane Fonda & Ted Turner in happier times; they separated in January 2000 and later divorced, though Turner still calls her the love of his life. Photo, Robin Platzer.
Turner stayed on the AOL Time-Warner board for several more years. But he increasingly turned his attention to other interests, including his extensive land holdings out West and in South America. He began raising bison on the some of the land, and in 2002, he co-founded Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain specializing in bison meat (50 restaurants now operating in more than 28 states). He had also set up — and became actively engaged with — various philanthropies involving environ- mental issues, endangered species, world peace, and the threat of nuclear weapons. In February 2006, he formally resigned from the AOL Time Warner board. A recent biography, Call Me Ted, was released in November 2008, joining a number of others from earlier years (see Sources below).
Regardless of what some critics might say, Ted Turner has fair claim to some braggadocio, especially given what he’s accomplished and how far he’s come: “I started with virtually nothing,” he explained in a 2007 interview. “In 1970, which was my first year in the television business, we had 35 employees at the station in Atlanta, and we did $600,000 in business…. When I merged with Time-Warner in 1995, which was 25 years later, we had 12,000 employees, and we did two-and-a-half billion dollars. Instead of losing a million dollars, which we did the first year, we made close to $250 million profit, and that was in 25 years.”
And despite his shortcomings in the social graces at times, Turner has, on balance, made the world a better place through both his philanthropy and his inventiveness in the news and entertainment business. There was usually a higher purpose in what he was about; a well-intended end of some kind. There was usually a higher purpose in what he was about; a well-intended end of some kind. In July 1997, as he and CNN were being recognized for their accomplishments at the Liberty Medal award ceremony, Turner explained how he and CNN regarded their news gathering and reporting: “My idea was, we’re just going to give people the facts…We didn’t have to show liberty and democracy as good, and show socialism or totalitarianism as bad. If we just showed them both the way they were…clearly everybody’s going to choose liberty and democracy.” Ted Turner clearly loved the media business. “CNN came out of my heart and soul and I didn’t like to leave,” he explained during a 2004 book promotion tour with author Ken Auletta in New York. “I loved the entertainment business… I’ll never get over being pushed out after the merger.” Turner had a vision of what he wanted to achieve to set the world right, but things just didn’t go fully according to plan:
“…[W]hen I merged with Time-Warner it was partly because I was tired. Also, I didn’t think I had enough cards to win the game [emphasis added]. There was going to be, as we’ve seen with Viacom and Disney and NBC, more and more consolidation in the business, and either you were one of the big players or you were going to be marginalized. And I thought merging with Time Warner –our assets were very complementary. I thought that the merger made lots of sense, and it did. The stock price tripled. We all got rich on the Turner/Time-Warner merger. That was the best merger in history….”
But Ted Turner was never about the money, or the awards – of which there have been many, among them, 42 honorary degrees from places like Brown University, Morehouse College, and The Citadel. He also holds some 176 sailing trophies and his smiling face has appeared on the covers of more than 100 magazines over the years. But Ted Turner was really aiming at something else.
On A White Horse
1998 book on Turner’s Goodwill Games and other ventures.
A 1998 book written about Turner’s involvement with the Goodwill Games and some of his other causes is titled Riding a White Horse. That image perhaps best captures the vision Ted Turner had set for himself. Hoping one day to have become a giant media tycoon – parlaying his Turner Broadcasting empire into the entity that would have eaten and conquered CBS or some other colossus. And then, from that perch as top media mogul, with more wealth and influence than ever flowing his way, he, “Ted the Beneficent,” would then be positioned to help solve all manner of the world’s problems.
True, “the man on the white horse” fell short of that, but not by much. He gave away a great deal of his wealth – proportionately well beyond what most others reaching those heights ever give. And he set things in motion and provided models that would live long after he passed on. Along the way, he also changed the business of news and entertainment, mostly for the better. He didn’t do it by himself, of course, as there were dozens of talented people around him. But he did supply the vision, the grit, and the determination to keep things moving forward. And for that and more – especially the constructive changes he brought to the business of news, information and entertainment, enabling millions to be informed in new and beneficial ways — the world owes Ted Turner a debt of thanks. …And he may not be finished yet.
For additional stories at this website on Business & Society, please see that category page, and for film history, the Film & Hollywood page. For story choices in the 1980s or 1990s, scroll to those respective decade options in the “Period Archive” in the upper right-hand corner of this page. Thanks for visiting – and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. - Jack Doyle
“Yachtsman Turner Purchases Braves; Yachtsman Buys Braves For at Least $10 Million,” New York Times, Sports Section, Wednesday, January 7, 1976, p. 59.
“Turner Is Reported Set to Buy Hawks,” Washington Post, December 28, 1976, p. D-16.
Christian Williams, “Super Station’s Super Man,” Washington Post, February 11, 1979, p. M-1.
Christian Williams, “Horatio Alger by Way of Buck Rogers – Satellite Madness,” Washington Post, February 11, 1979, p. M-3.
“Ted Turner’s Nonstop Gamble: CNN Sets Sail,” Washington Post, June 2, 1980, p. D-1.
Associated Press, “Turner Wins Satellite Suit,” New York Times, Wednesday February 11, 1981, p. D-10.
Reginald Stuart, “He’s Getting Interference, 1970-1981,” New York Times, Sunday, September 13, 1981, Financial, p. 6.
Tony Schwartz, “CBS and Turner Differ on Talks,” New York Times, October 16, 1981.
Philip H. Dougherty, “Advertising; Cable TV Doing Well In Commercials,” New York Times, December 8, 1981.
Tony Schwartz, “Turner Opens 2nd Network in Cable-News War,” New York Times, Monday, January 4, 1982, p. C-17.
Associated Press, “Turner Broadcasting Reports $5.3 Million Loss in Quarter,” New York Times, May 16, 1982.
Philip H. Dougherty, “Advertising; ‘Nonstop News Machine’,” New York Times, June 18, 1982.
William A. Henry, III, “Shaking Up the Networks,” Time (cover story), Monday, August 9, 1982.
Tony Schwartz, “Cable TV Programmers Find Problems Amid Fast Growth,” New York Times, September 28, 1982, p.1 .
Sally Bedell, “Ted Turner Challenges TV Networks,” New York Times, October 17, 1982.
Merrill Brown, “Ted Turner’s TV Dream Edges Toward Profit – After Years in the Red, TBS Verges on Being Profitable,” Washington Post, April, 24, 1983, p. F-1.
Sandra Salmans, “Television’s ‘Bad Boy’ Makes Good,” August 14, 1983, New York Times, Business Section, p. 1.
Sally Bedell Smith, “Turner Buys Sole Rival in Cable News Market,” New York Times, October 13, 1983.
Maynard Good Stoddard, “Cable TV’s Ted Turner: Spirited Skipper of CNN,” Saturday Evening Post, March 1, 1984.
Merrill Brown, “Ted Turner Plans Bid For ESPN,” Washington Post, April 7, 1984, p. D-9.
David A. Vise, “Turner Discussed CBS Bid With Sen. Helms,” Washington Post, March 20, 1985, p. A-1.
David A. Vise, “Turner Reveals Offer for CBS, Initiates Suits,” Washington Post, April 19, 1985, p. A-1.
Eleanor Randolph, “Turner Built Empire Bucking Establishment – ‘He Shouldn’t Be Underestimated’,” Washington Post, April 19, 1985, p. F-1.
Daniel Schorr, “Ted Turner Is Crazy Like a Fox,” Sunday Outlook Section, Washington Post, April 21, 1985, p. K-1.
David A. Vise, “Ted Turner To Buy MGM/UA – 2 Movie Studios’ Assets to Be Split In $1.5 Billion Deal,” Washington Post, August 6, 1985, p. C-1.
David A. Vise, “Turner Drops Hostile Bid for CBS,” Washington Post, August 8, 1985, p. E-3.
Nell Henderson, “Turner Says No to NBC’s Bid for CNN,” Washington Post, November 22, 1985, p. D-8.
Michael Schrage and David A. Vise, “Murdoch, Turner Launch Era of Global Television – Deregulation, Technology Help in Reshaping Industry Relaxation Of Rules In Europe A Boon to Turner, Murdoch,” Washington Post, August 31, 1986, p. H-1.
David A. Vise and Michael Schrage, “Murdoch, Turner: A Study in Contrasts – Pursuit of Common Goal Elicits Different Styles; Both Men Willing To Take Colossal Risks,” Washington Post, September 7, 1986, p. H-1.
Andrew Rosenthal, “Washington Talk: The News Media; Watching Cable News Network Grow,” New York Times, December 16, 1987.
Milton Moskowitz, Robert Levering, and Michael Katz, “Turner Broadcasting,” Everybody’s Business: A Field Guide to the 400 Leading Companies in America, Doubleday: New York, 1990, pp. 354-355.
Jerry Adler, “Jane and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Esquire, February 1991.
William A. Henry III, Anne Constable, Michael Duffy, William Tynan, “History As It Happens,” Time, Monday, January 6, 1992.
Robin Berger, “Castle Rock Purchase Costs Turner Broadcasting System $100 Million,”Los Angeles Business Journal, August 23, 1993.
Porter Bibb, Ted Turner: It Ain’t As Easy As It Looks, New York: Crown Publishers, 1993.
Edmund L. Andrews, The Media Business; “Angry Turner Says He Wants NBC,” New York Times, September 28, 1994.
“Turner May Weigh CBS Bid, NBC Says,” New York Times, August 8, 1995.
Geraldine Fabrikant, “In Quest of CBS, Turner Meets Microsoft Chief,” New York Times, August 14, 1995.
Geraldine Fabrikant, “Microsoft Seen Weighing $1 Billion Turner Stake,” New York Times, August 23, 1995.
“Turner Can’t Get a Grip on CBS,” Business Week, September 4, 1995.
Richard Corliss, “Time Warner’s Head Turner,” Time, Monday, September 11, 1995.
Mark Landler, “Time Warner Sets $8.5 Billion Offer for Turner Cable,” New York Times, August 30, 1995.
Maureen Dowd, “Ted’s Excellent Idea,” New York Times, August 22, 1996.
Ted Turner Remarks, Liberty Medal Award Ceremony, July 4, 1997.
Althea Carlson, Riding a White Horse: Ted Turner’s Goodwill Games and Other Crusades, Episcopal Press, 1998, 272 pp.
Michael J. Wolf, The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives, New York: Times Books/Random House, 1999, pp.122-123.
Jim Rutenberg, “MediaTalk; AOL Sees a Different Side of Time Warner,” New York Times, March 19, 2001.
Jim Rutenberg and Alessandra Stanley, “At 63, Ted Turner May Yet Roar Again,” New York Times, December 16, 2001.
Ken Auletta, “Q. & A.: Journalists and Generals,”(Ted Turner interview), The New Yorker, March 31, 2003.
Richard Hack, Clash of the Titans: How the Unbridled Ambition of Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch Has Created Global Empires that Control What We Read and Watch Each Day, 2003, New Millennium Press.
Reese Schonfeld, Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN, New York: HaperCollins, 2001, 432 pp.
Ted Turner, “My Beef With Big Media,”Washington Monthly, July/August 2004.
Gary Shapiro, “Tuning in to Ted Turner at the Y,” New York Sun (NYSun.com), September 30, 2004.
Ken Auletta, Media Man: Ted Turner’s Improbable Empire, Atlas Books, 2004.
Steve Hargreaves, “Ted Turner Exiting Time-Warner Board,”CNNMoney.com, February 24, 2006. ___________________________