NEW YORK — It was the big bash for the launching of TNT, Ted Turner's cable channel forclassic-movie buffs. Standing onstage at the Trump Plaza hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., Turner ceremonially threw the switch on TNT.
The first film to be shown on the new network was a movie that the Atlanta entrepreneur had loved for years: "Gone With the Wind." As Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh appeared on a large video screen, Turner, according to an observer, looked up and quietly said to nobody in particular, "Well, it cost me a billion dollars, but it's worth it."
At one time, Turner was virtually alone in that assessment. When the creator of Cable News Network went to Hollywood in 1986 and paid more than $1 billion for the rights to "Gone With the Wind" and the other 3,300 titles in the MGM film library as part of his $1.5-billion purchase of the MGM/UA Entertainment Co., financial analysts said that Turner had overpaid by a significant margin.
The MGM/UA deal so burdened Turner's company, Turner Broadcasting System Inc., with debt that the lone gun who had taken on the Big Three networks was forced to take in Time Inc. and other major cable-system operators as corporate partners.
"Sure, I identified with Rhett Butler as a kid and wanted to own 'Gone with the Wind,' " Turner said in a recent interview. "But what we needed was the bulk and quality of the MGM library. And it turned out to be a good deal for us."
Born of heart or head or both, TNT has proved to be one of the most successful new channels in the crowded cable field. Launched on Oct. 3, 1988, TNT is now available to about 40 million cable TV subscribers across the country. An advertiser-supported, basic-cable channel, TNT is offered to subscribers as part of the package of channels that comes with their monthly cable fee.
TNT is not on the list of the 10 largest cable networks, but it is one of the fastest-growing cable networks. It didn't hurt that many of Turner's cable partners gave TNT a base of subscribers to start with, but industry analysts say its growth is still a big hit at the cable box office.
"There was little doubt that TNT would be successful over time," says Larry Gerbrandt, a cable analyst with Paul Kagan Associates. "What was surprising was that it was in the black by the end of its first year. What looked like an expensive deal ultimately turned out to be a smart move." Gerbrandt places the current value of TNT at $700 million.
In addition to offering some 250 films a month, TNT recently has been expanding into making its own made-for cable TV-movies. The ratings are small by network standards, but not by cable's, and they're attracting some well-known actors. The TV-movies--now averaging about two a month but due to increase to four per month in 1991--range from a remake of "Dinner at Eight" with Lauren Bacall and Harry Hamlin to a biography of photographer Margaret Bourke-White starring Farrah Fawcett to an eight-hour adaptation of William L. Shirer's "The Nightmare Years," about the rise of the Third Reich, with Sam Waterston and Marthe Keller. Its most recent production, a new version of "Treasure Island" with Charlton Heston and Oliver Reed, premiered Monday night and repeats Saturday, Feb. 1 and 24.
The network also is going after Hollywood film makers interested in pursuing projects for TV. Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment company last month signed a deal to produce a series of teleplays by American playwrights for TNT. The dramas, which will be performed by a repertory company of actors, are expected to start airing in the spring of 1991.
And continuing a trend that may bring sorrow to sports fans who think it's un-American for sports not to be on "free" broadcast TV, TNT also is joining other cable networks in buying the rights to major TV sports events. TNT is airing some 70 National Basketball Assn. games this winter.
In addition, in what was said to be the first sale of Olympics events to basic-cable TV, TNT has agreed to pay CBS Sports $50 million to air 50 hours of live events during the 1992 and 1994 Winter Olympics. TNT will carry several hours of events live during the day, with an overnight rebroadcast of the CBS prime-time coverage.
Although TNT executives say theatrical films will remain the mainstay of the network, the moves into other areas of programming are designed to differentiate the network and appeal to younger, upscale viewers in prime time.
"The good news/bad news about a 'vertical' cable channel like TNT is that people feel they can tune in any time to see movies," said Scott Sassa, executive vice president. "We want to create events in prime time, including our best movies, that will compete with the broadcast networks."