For nearly 50 years, Ted Turner and the Turner brand have been integral parts of the landscape of Atlanta and the nation's media industry. But that's changing in the wake of the finalization of the AT&T-Time Warner merger, as a WarnerMedia spokesman confirmed to NBC News that the Turner brand will likely soon be retired.
"With the new structure, we no longer need that brand," the spokesman explained. "The Turner name isn't as meaningful."
For many, the news marks the end of an era for a brand and a man who pioneered cable television and is credited with developing the 24-hour news cycle.
There is no word as to when the Turner name will officially go away, said WarnerMedia, but the brand's retirement would likely affect entities like Turner Sports and properties bearing the Turner name throughout Atlanta, and that staffers who previously identified themselves as Turner employees will soon identify themselves as WarnerMedia employees.
This latest casualty of the AT&T/Time Warner media merger comes a year after AT&T Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson and his top entertainment executive, John Stankey, flew to Atlanta to meet in person with Ted Turner to personally assure him that his legacy would be maintained in the wake of any reorganization of the company.
"Ted and I were assured at that meeting, by the highest levels, by the AT&T chairman and the chairman of WarnerMedia, that all that Ted built would be strengthened and that the editorial integrity of CNN and the journalistic excellence of CNN will prevail," said Tom Johnson, a former president of CNN, and a close friend who was with Turner at the time of the private lunch in March 2018.
Johnson said he and Turner have not heard back from Stephenson and Stankey since the finalization of the merger. Johnson says he remains cautiously optimistic that Turner's legacy will be maintained, but admitted news that the Turner name may soon be gone from products of the empire he built is saddening.
"There's tremendous concern among all of those who served with Ted," Johnson told NBC News. "I have an inbox loaded with messages, texts from concerned staffers and community leaders because of Ted's extraordinary record in Atlanta. There's great affection for Ted."
"It's a sad moment," said Steve Stahl, a former director of operations for CNN who began working for Turner in 1984. "The Turner brand was a fantastic brand. It was synonymous with the underdog. Ted had the idea to put his little UHF station on cable, and to do 24 hours of news for the first time. Time after time, he innovated. I think that will be the greatest shame — to not have something physical to remember him by."
In addition to the myriad of CNN networks, Turner also launched TNT, Cartoon Network, and Turner Movie Classics, and owned the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and Atlanta Braves baseball team.
Many who worked closely with Turner say the erosion of the Turner brand has been ongoing since Turner merged his media empire in the late 1990s, first with Time Warner and later with AOL. Turner had served as an operating officer following the Time Warner merger, overseeing all cable operations, and was under the impression he would serve a similar role following the merger with AOL — but that did not happen. When it became evident that Turner was being pushed out of the media empire he built, Turner lashed out publicly, telling CNN staffers at a private concert to mark the network's 20th anniversary in June 2000 that he had been sold out.
Turner formally resigned from his role as vice chairman of AOL/Time Warner in 2003 and his name — and presence — has steadily slipped from many of the networks he founded and properties he built ever since.
Today, the Atlanta Braves — which Turner bought in 1976 and worked doggedly to brand "America's Team" as he broadcast their games on a near-nightly basis on his then-fledgling cable station — no longer play on what had long been Turner Field. In 2017, Turner Field was renamed Georgia State Stadium.
Turner, 80, who announced last year he suffers from dementia, has given no interviews since the finalization of the AT&T/Time Warner merger. In a written statement, he said, "Given I have been out of the cable and television industry for many years now, I trust Randall Stephenson, John Stankey and the executive team will do what is best for the company, its businesses, and most importantly, its employees." NBC News reached out to Turner but has not yet received a response.
Since the merger, there has been speculation from past and present staffers that many of the operations currently based in Atlanta will be diminished or moved elsewhere, likely to New York and Los Angeles. There has additionally been growing concern among CNN staffers, past and present, that CNN Center — the large structure in downtown Atlanta that houses multiple CNN networks as well as a hotel and a number of businesses — is quietly being shopped and that while CNN would likely retain a presence there, it could be in a rental capacity.
Many longtime Turner staffers worry what the retirement of the Turner brand could mean for the city of Atlanta.
"It's like cutting my heart out with a spoon," said Andy Parsons, a former senior projects manager at CNN who worked with Turner since the network launched in 1980 and, like many Turner staffers, remains in Atlanta. "It's going to be a kick in the ass the day that they take the Turner signs off some of these buildings and replace it with WarnerMedia."
"I guess only time will tell," said Johnson about the future of the Turner brand. "This is an incredibly different media world than the one that existed when I was CEO of CNN. There's so much consolidation and streaming in so many different ways."
"I think we all have our time," said Stahl. "It's just sad for us who worked for Ted to see the name start to fade to black."