May, 1995 —
1 CNN Center, North Tower, 14th Floor
YOU COULD ALMOST be excused for missing it.
After all, it stood rather inconspicuous amidst a sea of decorative souvenirs. Indeed, some eyes were first drawn to the accolades on display - the prime-time Emmy, the CableACE award, TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year cover - while others stared more intently at Jane Fonda’s image, showcased alluringly in a framed photograph. Perhaps most captivating, however, was the sight of ‘Leo’, a full-bodied stuffed lion who curiously resembled - and increasingly so, with each passing glance - the one whose roar set the stage for those classic MGM movies. A persistent rumor posited that it could be the actual lion, who by now had clearly seen better days. ‘Leo looks sick’, thought some recent visitors.
But there it was, silently demanding your attention in the middle of the room. At the front of the desk in this top-floor office, a solid brown plaque displayed an insightful refrain:
Either lead, follow or get out of the way.
The artifact was as revealing as it was succinct. The plaque, the office, and the building (for all intents and purposes) belonged to Robert Edward Turner III - better known to the public as the eccentric media mogul, Ted Turner. On a particularly humid Atlanta day, Ted surveyed the downtown district and contemplated the standing of his pioneering cable television enterprise, Turner Broadcasting System (TBS, Inc). Ted’s broadcasting empire, which included ownership of New Line Cinema, CNN, and the Atlanta Braves, seemed to be under no immediate threat. For now, there was the simple matter of an executive committee meeting, a monthly gathering that functioned as a pep rally of sorts for both the charismatic Chairman and his high-level suits.
As a faction of key executives entered the room, Ted cast his 56-year old pale blue eyes at a veritable ‘who’s who’ of TBS, Inc. Among those in attendance were Terry Foster McGuirk, Turner’s Director and Executive Vice President; Randolph ‘Randy’ L. Booth, a former Chief Financial Officer now working as an adviser; and the Director and Vice President of Turner Entertainment Group, Scott Sassa, widely considered to be the heir apparent to Turner’s throne.
As the agenda moved to AOB - any other business - Booth announced with palpable glee that an unsolicited offer had been received for one of Turner’s subsidiary companies. It was an offer to purchase the organization whose televised presence - for many of the TBS corporate brass, at least - had been nothing but a constant source of embarrassment. In an ironic allusion to its place in the organizational hierarchy, this particular entity was listed last on the company’s inventory of 150 controlled assets (the list was compiled of course, as is standard for the SEC, in alphabetical order).
Booth reported that an offer had been made to purchase World Championship Wrestling (WCW), Inc. - the Turner-controlled pro wrestling outfit and notoriously inept money-loser. Since its official inception some seven years earlier, WCW had never so much as made a single dollar in profit, and to many, its continued survival was as perplexing as its creation.
Apparently, Ted possessed a soft spot for his wrestlers - or rasslers as he would call them - because WCW had never gone away. Its origins could be traced back to 1972, when a regional organization known as Georgia Championship Wrestling (GCW) produced a self-titled television program on the Turner-owned WTCG station. The wrestling show, in addition to Atlanta Braves coverage and ‘Andy Griffith Show’ reruns, propelled WTCG to become the original cable network, reinventing the entire television industry.
In 1979, following the network’s re-branding to WTBS (and eventually, simply TBS), GCW’s show - now billed as World Championship Wrestling - became the first wrestling program to be broadcast across America. By 1982, the series achieved the unprecedented distinction of attracting a million viewers on cable, solidifying its status as a legitimate cultural institution in the South. But in April 1984, following some tumultuous internal strife, GCW (and its hallowed 6:05pm Saturday timeslot) was sold to Vince McMahon, Jr., newly minted owner of the Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation (WWF). Three months later, on July 14, 1984, McMahon stunned the loyal GCW audience with an unannounced appearance on TBS television - an occurrence that came to be known as Black Saturday. While previously, fans had been used to bouts produced intimately in an Atlanta sound studio, the new show featured taped matches from Madison Square Garden. It was still wrestling, but it wasn’t rasslin’, and consequently, the reaction to the change was catastrophic.
In response to mounting complaints and sinking ratings, an angry Ted Turner looked for restorative action. He decided to effectively compete against McMahon on his own network, providing rival promoters with air time around the Saturday night show. Hampered by Turner’s decree, the WWF ceased to enjoy exclusivity on TBS, and so with his financial incentive dwindling, McMahon begrudgingly sold the time slot rights (and World Championship Wrestling name) to promoter Jim Crockett, Jr. in March 1985 (attaching the promise, according to wrestling lore, that Crockett would live to “choke” on his investment).
After the purchase, Crockett’s company - Jim Crockett Promotions (JCP) - became the second-biggest wrestling organization in the country. But after several years of unsuccessful competition with the WWF, talks began to engineer a sale of JCP to Turner Broadcasting. For Ted Turner, whose growing empire demanded the need for popular (and cheap) entertainment programming, the opportunity to acquire a wrestling company seemed like a fairly logical strategic move. After all, his guiding principle, formed in the early days of running his father’s billboard business, was to constantly seek to acquire assets. His famous refusal to sell the library of old films that eventually became Turner Classic Movies showed that the approach appeared to work.
Besides, his aides thought, Ted simply got a kick out of the populist pageantry, over-the-top characters, and soap opera-type storylines that accompanied the pre-determined bouts of wrestling. And so, on November 2, 1988, a reported $9 million sale of JCP to Turner was made official. Using the World Championship Wrestling moniker as the name of the new company, WCW was officially born, and soon it began to separate from its historic territorial roots.
But after a mostly well-received first year in operation, a series of horrendous managerial decisions and bizarre on-screen stories entrenched WCW as a distant number two, trailing pitifully behind McMahon’s WWF. Undoubtedly, TBS’ wrestling outfit - to a sizable number of its own executives, no less - was already an absolute joke, often failing to ensure sufficient crowds despite giving away tickets en masse.
And then there were the demographics. Oh, the demographics! While an oft-repeated gag theorized that WCW exhibited the opposite of ‘PBS syndrome’ (far more people, as indicated by the Nielsen television ratings, watched the programming than were willing to admit), those that apparently did watch represented a portion of the audience that simply repelled advertisers. While the viewership for WCW’s various syndicated programming and its flagship show on TBS - WCW Saturday Night - significantly contributed to the network’s overall numbers, an inherent stigma associated with pro wrestling suggested that it appealed mostly to a low-income, low-education, low-on-sophistication crowd.
The content of WCW programming did little to help its perception. In one indelible moment, Robocop (no typo) came to the aid of wrestler Sting, only to walk backstage and never be seen again. In another plot, a dastardly one-eyed dwarf named Cheatum engineered a terrorist bombing, presumably in an effort to kill two good-guy wrestlers. And in perhaps the most infamous happening of them all, a debuting villain named The Shockmaster crashed embarrassingly through a prop wall on live television, losing his helmet (and dignity) in the process.
For the account executives within ‘Turner Ad Sales’ - the branch of Ted’s empire tasked with selling commercial time on his networks - it became increasingly difficult to rationalize keeping WCW afloat. It would be unwise, many agreed, to aggressively pitch wrestling to traditional advertisers, at the risk of losing their overall business. The idea of presenting Proctor & Gamble, for example, or General Motors, with the concept of taking out spots on WCW’s shows was uniformly laughed at. The outcome seemed as predictable as a Hulk Hogan match. Besides, didn’t everyone know it was all fake?
And so, in what became practically a yearly tradition, the TBS elite proposed removing WCW from the airwaves. It stayed that way, of course, until early 1992, when one such plea ended almost as soon as it began. The conversation ceased, several attendees would recall, with Ted reminding his subordinates whose name was on the front door.
Those close to Turner had rarely seen him as enraged as on that day. He had previously promised his rasslers, in a rare visit to a television taping, that WCW would have a home as long as he retained power. But as the name on the front door remained, so did the resentment of WCW’s existence.
“We have received an offer for W-C-”
The cumulative history of TBS wrestling set the stage for Booth’s announcement. He could barely finish delivering the news before Scott Sassa leapt to his feet, high-fiving Terry McGuirk in a display of pure elation. Sassa enjoyed a particularly close rapport with Ted, but he seemed to be acting on behalf of everyone. This is it, the group agreed with their eyes. We can finally be done with wrestling. A communal sense of relief filled the room, tempered just slightly by a cautious optimism. When push came to shove, their billionaire boss would have the final say.
Ted’s eyes narrowed. His instincts, well honed after a lifetime of making decisions based on feel, urged him to embrace his spontaneous nature. Before it became cliché, he was a true maverick, totally unaffected by the opinions of others, and characteristically unafraid to make decisions. While his brain wave to popularize 24-hour news with CNN was now hailed, for example, as a decided stroke of genius, he recalled the complete lack of support when he first broached the idea. “Uh, Mr. Turner,” he remembered hearing. “People can barely watch 20 minutes of news. You want to run news all day?” Dubbed by the national press as ‘Captain Outrageous’ (or alternatively, ‘The Mouth of the South’), Ted never could quite hold his tongue, once casually suggesting to Atlanta Braves pitcher Andy Messersmith that he change his last name to “Channel” (Messersmith wore no. 17, the same number as WTCG). And true to his nature, The Mouth wasn’t going to stay quiet at this moment.
It was time to start taking WCW seriously, he decided. USA Network were achieving impressive prime-time numbers for the WWF’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw, even despite the wrestling industry experiencing a depressing downturn in popularity. We own a wrestling company, the Chairman said on occasion. We should be getting these numbers on prime-time - wrestling should be our thing.
Ted leaned forward as the Sassa-McGuirk high-five reverberated around him.
“You’ve now got wrestling,” he told Sassa matter-of-factly.
But Sassa provided oversight to both the TBS network - traditionally, home to WCW programming - and TNT (Turner Network Television), the latter of which had been positioned as an upscale basic cable option (or ‘gold standard’). To this end, TNT defined itself internally with a clear mission statement, by virtue of its iconic classic film library, big budget original cable movies, and elite professional sports coverage:
TNT is for upscale adult couples and families looking for quality-driven television. TNT is that premiere basic cable network offering a variety of blue-chip sports and entertainment programs.
“You’ve now got wrestling,” Turner clarified to Sassa. “On TNT. In prime time.”
The suits paused in disbelief. Such a proposal, it was widely believed, completely contradicted TNT’s efforts to position itself, especially in an increasingly crowded cable marketplace. The cross pollination of Turner’s NBA coverage, whereby TNT telecasts augmented airings on TBS, already made the task of showing differentiation difficult. Therefore, aside from Ted, the consensus was rather clear - WCW on TNT would only muddy the waters further.
But that hardly mattered to Ted. His career accomplishments had developed an unshakable belief in his own convictions, no matter how spontaneous. He was a cable television pioneer after all, founder of CNN, and husband to Jane Fonda! Indeed, his was a very American story; the tale of the self-made entrepreneur with a genuine courage to take chances. And so, the decision would be final.
TNT would air World Championship Wrestling in prime-time, and they would have to make it work. In perhaps the most unlikely of tag team combinations, upscale and downscale would have to co-exist.