Last Wednesday, All Elite Wrestling and WarnerMedia made a longstanding wrestling rumor official when they announced that the startup promotion’s flagship show will air weekly on TNT beginning this fall. No financial terms were revealed in the initial statement or at the upfronts, and neither was a specific time slot or debut date for that show; AEW’s debut show, the pay-per-view Double or Nothing, is set for this coming Saturday night. But even without the details, there’s some obvious historic significance to the pact. Pro wrestling is returning to the the former Turner family of networks for the first time since the sale and closure of Turner Broadcasting’s World Championship Wrestling 18 years ago.
According both NFL writer John McMullen and Andrew Zarian of the Mat Men podcast, the deal between AEW and its new network home is not structured the way that WWE’s are. In WWE’s case, networks pay a rights fee to the promotion in exchange for the programming, but TNT is covering the production costs and splitting advertising revenue with AEW. McMullen says that the split for AEW is “great,” and Wrestling Observer Newsletter editor Dave Meltzer added in his latest issue that the deal has a downside guarantee or revenue floor—paying AEW a minimum figure even if their share of ad revenue falls below a downside/floor. Meltzer also noted that a network paying for the production costs of a wrestling show is incredibly unusual (and uniquely advantageous for the promotion) in a rights-fee deal. Though a spokesperson for AEW was unable to comment, a source familiar with the matter speaking to Deadspin took no issue with the substance of the reporting.
It’s hard to know what a “great” ad revenue split would be, and not especially useful to guess given how little is known about the structure of the deal. But rights fees come from ad revenue, and on a network that attracts as many prime-time viewers as TNT—and with production costs already covered—a revenue split for AEW looks a lot better than, say, the revenue-share deal that Impact Wrestling was stuck with on the much smaller Pop TV. Such a deal also allows TNT to say they’re not taking a huge risk on an unproven startup, even though one is backed by the many millions of Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan and run by his son, Tony.
It’s long been said that TBS, Turner Broadcasting’s original cable network, was built on the back of wrestling, Atlanta Braves games, and reruns of The Andy Griffith Show. The statement is generally attributed to Ted Turner himself, but it’s true regardless no matter who said. What’s now the comedy-themed cable network of the WarnerMedia/Turner Broadcasting family started as independent channel 17 in Atlanta. In June 1969, Turner Communications Corp. announced a merger with Rice Broadcasting Co. which was approved the following December and completed in January 1970. That deal brought Rice’s WJRJ-TV—channel 17—under the newly merged Turner banner; in 1970, Ted renamed the station WTCG, which either stood for “Turner Communications Group” or “Watch This Channel Grow,” depending on the source. The local wrestling show, meanwhile, moved over from the stronger WQXI-TV channel 11 on Christmas Day in 1971. This was a bit of a shock since Live Atlanta Wrestling averaged 100,000 households each week on the bigger station.
While it’s tempting to skip from here to WTCG’s uplink to satellite and transition to becoming a national “SuperStation” in 1976, it’s worth taking a minute to appreciate Turner’s prescience and brilliance as a broadcasting impresario. He saw the potential of wrestling before just about anyone else, and years before he began making it a reality.
In August of 1969, just over a month after the merger was announced, newspaper TV listings in other parts of the southeast, like Anniston, Alabama, started to include notes about local cable, including channel 17. Turner’s channel would arrive in homes via microwave transmission, a method whose signals degraded over longer distance but easily served neighboring states like Alabama. This reminded me of something that former wrestler and promoter Ron Fuller, whose father, Buddy, co-owned the Georgia promotion back then, had recounted on his podcast. When the younger Fuller was in his senior year of high school, his father started asking him if he knew what cable TV was. Turner, it turned out, had been chatting him up.
Ron graduated high school in 1966, a decade before channel 17 became “the SuperStation” and five years before Ted got Buddy’s local Atlanta wrestling show. This timeline seemed somewhat farfetched, even if Fuller was known to be one of the most honest wrestling promoters of his era. But channel 17 showing up on regional cable just three years later, pretty much as soon as Turner could swing it, makes it seem a lot more plausible.
As an Atlanta broadcaster who was already something of a wrestling fan, Turner had no problem seeing the value that the sport could have for his station. Stories of him attending tapings at his studio in the early days are legion among wrestlers of that era, but Fuller tells Deadspin that Turner, as a prominent local fan, also hung around the channel 11 tapings long before it was his show. Live Atlanta Wrestling was a massive hit, and Ted wanted it so much that he wasn’t willing to wait to make a deal for Atlanta’s incumbent wrestling show.
Remember how WTCG sometimes stood for “Watch This Channel Grow” when it didn’t stand for Turner’s company name? The earliest reference to those initials can be found in the Atlanta Constitution, in August 1970. The following month, on September 26, marked what appears to be the real debut of wrestling on the station. Those viewers were going to watch that channel grow with...Vince McMahon Sr.’s Capital Wrestling from Philadelphia.
I’ve read a lot about the history of Atlanta wrestling, especially in that era, and this bit of early adoption was not part of any wrestling history that I’ve ever heard. It’s true, though, and especially intriguing given the younger Vince McMahon’s obsession with Ted Turner. The 1990s wrestling war heated up when Turner greenlit WCW’s Monday Nitro, a prime time weekly show that ran opposite McMahon’s flagship Monday Night Raw. That rivalry is legendary, but it turns out to be older and stranger than we knew.
For about 15 months, pretty much every week until the local show moved to channel 17 under the new name of Georgia Championship Wrestling, McMahon’s wrestling show aired on Saturday nights on Ted Turner’s sleepy little southern independent station at 9 p.m. (An October 1971 newspaper ad even includes “wrestling”—McMahon’s—as one of the many reasons to check out WTCG now that they had upgraded their transmitter.) The Georgia show was on channel 11 right after that, first at 10:30 p.m. and then again at 11. There was even one week in July 1971 in which the shows aired opposite each other at 8:30 p.m. Which means that, even if it was just for one week, Ted Turner was already broadcasting what would become WWE wrestling, on what would become TBS, aired directly opposite the Georgia promotion that was effectively absorbed into what eventually became WCW. In 1971. Pro wrestling’s bizarre web of business relationships has never looked weirder.
Ron Fuller, for this part, told Deadspin that he had never heard about this before. And if he hadn’t, there may well not be anyone who really knows what was going on back then. But we can say this: when a wrestling show aired outside of its own territory in that era, it was always for a reason. Maybe a friendly promoter sent in tape to head off a competitor invading the territory, but then there was no such competitor in Atlanta in 1970. Fuller drew what would appear to be the obvious inference: Turner put another wrestling show on Saturday nights in Atlanta to pressure his dad into moving to channel 17. After all, if you were going to make such a move, using the more “big city” WWF show as both a proof of concept and a lever made sense.
Anyway, back to our originally scheduled programming...
WTCG went on satellite in December 1976, and Turner’s “SuperStation,” renamed WTBS in 1979, gained a following as one of the early national cable networks. While people loved Andy Griffith and the Braves would become America’s Team in markets without MLB franchises, wrestling was the station’s one true juggernaut. According to a story about the arc of WCW in the May 27, 2013 issue of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, an episode of Georgia Championship Wrestling was not just the first show on the Superstation to bring in a million viewers for an episode, it was also the first show on all of cable television to have a given episode viewed in 1 million homes. The Georgia wrestlers became huge national stars, to the point that they could get booked in other territories, and the promotion soon started running in regions like Michigan and Ohio, which no longer had active territories, entirely off the strength of their cable viewership.
Things got a lot more complicated in the 1980s, with the Georgia promotion going through management and ownership upheaval, most memorably when Vincent Kennedy McMahon cobbled together enough minority shares to take over in 1984. The move gave him a monopoly on wrestling time slots on major cable networks at the time, as he had taken over the Sunday morning USA Network slot the previous September and his New York flagship, WWOR channel 9, was its own cable superstation. But McMahon’s Georgia move didn’t go well, as his wrestling and the southern product were nothing alike; over a thousand fans quickly flooded TBS’s phone lines to demand the return of the Georgia-style grappling.
This led to a scenario in which three different promotions were on TBS at the same time, at least before McMahon sold the rights to his slot to Jim Crockett Promotions in the Carolinas, which finagled an exclusive deal with the station. The deal carried that promotion to their own national boom alongside the WWF, but Crockett’s promotion grew too quickly for a company run out of a converted convenience store and needed a bailout by 1988. Turner was waiting once again, buying them out in November of that year. This was the birth of WCW.
For most of its 12-plus years on earth, Turner’s World Championship Wrestling promotion was an utter contradiction—the TV ratings were great, but there was little fan engagement in most other revenue streams, especially live attendance. Since pay-per-view often did quite well even when attendance was in the toilet, many of the attendance issues can be blamed on the promotional malpractice of the likes of Don Glass, an ex-WWE employee who infamously thought it was a good idea to run in San Antonio on Easter Sunday.
WCW struck gold in 1996 thanks to improved live event promotion, new stars lured from WWE, and hot storylines buoyed by the addition of WCW Monday Nitro. Still, the company was never managed well and was gone five years later. That’s when WWE bought the company assets after wrestling’s time slots were finally canceled, after three decades, by incoming Turner executive Jamie Kellner. Wrestling became toxic in the TV world for several years after that, and even when the landscape got rosier, the Turner networks always seemed like the longest possible shot. Many in the organization had looked down on the genre all along, and many more were bruised by the WCW experience. That changed when the AEW rumors got going.
TBS is the channel’s current cable incarnation, which split off from channel 17 in 2007. That would have been the most romantic home for AEW on the Turner networks, as it’s the one with the longest history with the sport. But while TNT had wrestling for just five and a half years, its Monday Nitro was the biggest wrestling show that the Turner family ever had; it’s a fitting home, and it would be a great one without the history. It fits in another way, too: AEW is the first truly viable startup wrestling promotion since WCW died, which means there couldn’t be a more perfect TV outlet for it in the United States than Nitro’s old home. Whatever AEW winds up being—and until Double Or Nothing airs, it’s anyone’s guess—it’s at least in the right place.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Turner Broadcasting and the headline referenced Ted Turner; the company was renamed Warner Media earlier this year and Ted Turner is no longer involved.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y., who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.