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America’s First Superstation – How WTBS Took Over Cable TV

This is the story of how a humble billboard company based out of Savannah, Georgia, grew into one of the largest and most influential television and media conglomerates that the world has ever seen. Granted, there were a few crucial steps in between those two historical bookends that need to be discussed. Stick around to see the many twists and turns that this prominent television conglomerate has taken over the years. Facts Verse Presents: America’s First SuperStation – How WTBS Took Over Cable TV

From Billboards To The Small Screen

Turner Broadcasting Systems can trace it’s roots back to a billboard company in Savannah, Georgia called Turner Advertising Company which was purchased by Robert Edward Turner II in the late 1940s.

Robert’s son, Ted Turner, ended up inheriting the company after Robert took his own life in 1963. After taking over his father’s business, Ted Turner expanded the company into radio and television advertising.

The formal entity Turner Broadcasting System was offocially incorporated on May 12, 1965.

Ted Turner purchased the small UHF station WJRJ-Atlanta, Channel 17, in 1970. After buying the channel, he changed it’s name to WTCG after the parent company Turner Communications Group. While that’s technically what the TCG stood for, Turner frequently said during these formative years that the station’s call letters really represented “Watch This Channel Grow”.

Ted Turner has always been a remarkably ambitious man. If he sets his mind to something, chances are, he’s going to accomplish whatever that may be. You can’t fault the guy for having vision. If anything, Turner’s passion is what’s transformed him into one of the most powerful players in the entertainment industry.

Turner set out to watch his channel grow, and that’s exactly what he planned to do. In December 1976, WTCG came up with the novel ‘superstation’ concept and started transmitting their 24/7 broadcasts via satelite to cable systems across the country.

The network’s first broadcast was beamed to four cable systems in Newport News, Virginia, Newton, Kansas, Troy, Alabama, and Grand Island, Nebraska. All four of the systems started receiving the WTCG signal at 1:00pm on December 17, 1976. The first thing broadcast on the fledgling stuperstation was the 1948 Dana Andrews and Cesar Romero film Deep Waters, which was already in progress after starting thirty minutes earlier.

Overnight, WTCG went from being a little relatively unknown local TV station to a major TV network that more than 24,000 homes outside of the 675,000+ in Atlanta, Georgia, was receiving throughout the nation. WTCG became the first ‘superstation’, thus laying out the groundwork that countless other basic cable TV networks would continue to follow to this day.

Some might point to HBO as being the first to claim that title, seeing as how they had made the move to satellite transmission to distribute their signal throughout the US in 1975, but the key difference there is that their service required cable subscribers to pay extra in order to receive it. Ted Turner’s innovation was one that was far more accessible to the average consumer, as his channel was available to anyone that had a basic cable subscription.

In 1979, Ted’s company changed it’s name to Turner Broadcasting System incorporated, and the call letters of it’s primary entertainment channel changed to WTBS. Up until that point, the channel was identified as “Channel 17” both in the Atlanta market as well as on cable systems outside of the Atlanta metropolitan area.

Even after changing the callsign to WTBS, however, Turner still incorporated the number 17 into the logo of “Superstation WTBS”.

17 Update Early In The Morning

While TBS airs a variety of programming, one format that it doesn’t currently produce is news. However, back in the day, they did dabble in the news business – albeit reluctantly. To keep up with FCC requirements, WTBS aired a twenty-minute newscast from 1975 to 1979.

The program was called 17 Update Early In The Morning. It was hastily taped at the end of each workday and aired at around 3am EDT inbetween movies. The show didn’t attempt to take itself seriously and was quite similar to satires like Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update.

While the FCC required TBS to broadcast news, they never stipulated when they had to do it, nor was is required for the news to be delivered in a serious tone. The snide news program developed a cult following due to it’s wild antics, but it was canceled a few months before Turner began his serious news project, CNN.

In the early 80s, TBS Superstation began airing it’s own newscast show called TBS Evening News, which was actually produced by CNN. This show too was quickly phased out, and TBS has since shied away from carrying any news coverage.

The Basic Cable Revolution Was Televised

Banking on the success of WTBS, Ted Turner and company launched Cable News Network aka CNN on June 1, 1980, at 5:00pm Eastern time. The station was the first 24-hour cable news channel. The first newscast was anchored by the husband and wife team of Dave Walker and Lois Hart.

The first executive producer of CNN, Burt Reinhardt, hired the majority of the network’s 200 employees and 25 staff members including Bernard Shaw, the station’s first full-time news anchor.

Always looking to expand his ever-growing media empire, Ted Turner and his company Turner Broadcasting System bought the film production company Brut Productions from Faberge inc. in 1981.

That same year, WTBS began airing it’s programming on “Turner Time”, which involved shows beginning five minutes after the top and bottom of the hour as opposed to the industry norm of beginning at the top and bottom of the hour. Fortunately, this peculiar practice would eventually be phased out.

Turner also made the decision to have almost all of WTBS’ programming continue to air both locally and nationally, although to separate feeds.

Locally in Atlanta, the station would be known as “Superstation 17”. Nationally, however, the station would no longer mention the channel number 17, nor would it have logos identifying it as anything but “Superstation WTBS”.

Separate sets of ads would air on the National superstation feed, and a few shows were nixed locally to make room for FCC-mandated news, public service announcements, and children’s shows.

Not everything that Turner touched turned to gold. After all, even the GOATs have their off days. In 1984, Turner founded Cable Music Channel, a network that was meant to be the direct competitor of MTV. Unfortunately, the channel quickly fizzled. Even so, it’s credited with having influenced the original format of VH1.

In 1986, Turner made a failed attempt to acquire CBS. After that deal fell through, he purchased the studio MGM/UA Entertainment Company from Kirk Kerkorian for a hefty $1.5 billion. After making that acquisition, however, Turner, who had a major debt to contend with, ended up selling parts of the acquisition off.

He sold MGM/UA Entertainment back to Kerkorian, and the MGM/UA Studio Lot in Culver City went to Lorimar Telepictures. While it might not sound like it, that deal wasn’t a total loss as Turner got to keep MGM’s pre-May 1986 film and television library as well as the pre-1950 Warner Bros film library and the US/Canadian distribution rights to the RKO Pictures Library.

After acquiring those lucrative libraries, Turner Entertainment Co. was founded on the fourth of August, 1984. A decade later, Turner would launch Turner Classic Movies, a cable network that primarily broadcasts classic films from the Turner Entertainment film library.

The Switchover to Peachtree TV

In June 2007, Turner Broadcasting announced that WTBS was going to be changing it’s call letters to become WPCH-TV. But that wasn’t the only change as the channel was also going to be rebranded as Peachtree TV.

According to Ted, the new channel 17 was going to air sitcoms and films geared specifically towards the Atlanta audience. The station would additionally broadcast 45 Atlanta Braves baseball games for the following season. When the change was made on October 1, 2007, it allowed Atlanta cable and satellite customers to receive the national TBS signal for the first time since the early 80s.

Oddly, in Canada, the majority of cable and satellite TV providers carried the local WTBS signal as opposed to the national TBS channel. Following the Peachtree TV change, Canadian systems were legally obligated to continue carrying the Peachtree TV signal instead of the national TBS feed.

In 2017, Turner sold Peachtree TV to the Meredith Corporation. A few years later, in 2021, the network was acquired by Gray Television and was reformatted as a traditional independent station with a separate schedule that exclusively caters to the Atlanta market.

As of April 2022, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery Inc to form WBD or Warner Brothers Discovery. A few days later, it was announced that WBD had suspended original scripted series development for TBS and it’s sister network TNT in order to “evaluate the channel’s strategies” going forward.

As of today, TBS seems to be a dying brand as the network only has three original series still airing, Chad, Miracle Workers, and American Dad!. More bad news about the network broke on May 11 when it was announced that Brett Weltz was removed as the general manager for the “T channels” ie. TBS, TruTV, and TNT. Since Weltz removal, the channels are now under the oversight of Kathleen Finch, the head of US Networks.

We’re just about out of time, but fortunately, we got around to covering all of the major developments in the history of the world’s first ‘superstation’, WTBS.

What do you think the future holds for TBS and Peachtree TV? And do you think it was wise for Ted Turner to relinquish his control of the networks that he helped build from the ground up? Let us know in the comments.

As always, thanks for watching.

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