Robert L. Turner
“As they built the advertising, television time became a commodity.”
Robert L. Turner, media executive and former New York congressman; excerpted from an interview with the National Museum of American History, February 21, 2019. Edited for clarity by the National Museum of American History, June 2019.
On starting a career
I went to college, and in those years you could graduate midyear, so I graduated in grammar school and high school midyear and went right to college and graduated at 21. At the time, the draft was in effect, but they weren't drafting people in my neighborhood until they were 22 ½. Trying to start a career with this over your head was a mess, so I went down to push the draft up and was assigned to Fort Polk, Louisiana, where I ran the English department in the personnel school.
When I got out of the Army, we had like $1,100 in the bank and about four or five weeks to find a job. Through a family connection, I had a job offer in the long lines division of AT&T, but through my own devices, I got a job there in station clearance and station relations. I was there for two years when an opportunity opened at Bristol-Myers through a friend.
On television advertising
My job at Bristol-Myers was to plug product advertisements into program time periods that were already bought. This product goes into Bewitched and Windex goes into M*A*S*H. Then we tried to equalize the costs to make it fair to the brands.
There were only three minutes per half hour at the time, and when ABC tried to add a fourth minute to Batman, all hell broke loose. The affiliates said, “Three minutes is all you get!” because it's all one big pot of television money. If you increase the time, it's going to be coming out of somebody's pile. Batman went back to three minutes, and it stayed that way for a while. As the affiliates started losing power, the networks were able to add more time. I think they’re now probably 10–12 minutes. Whatever they can get.
At the time, the advertisers had a very strict say in the programming, in the content, and the direction of the program, and they wanted an image. Father Knows Best and even The Beverly Hillbillies were wholesome. Sex and violence were at a minimum. That started to change as they built the advertising, and television time became a commodity. The shift of the programming decisions and the content went back to the networks, and we had an increase in the sex and violence. The advertisers would complain, but the more sex and violence, the bigger the numbers.
On In Search Of
Leonard Nimoy and I became pretty good friends because Alan Landsburg, a producer, came to us with an idea—a project called In Search Of, which was a network special. It was about the occult and other strange things, and I thought there was an opportunity to do it in syndication.
Alan said it would cost $125,000 an episode, but it worked for us at $72,000 or $75,000. He said “I can't do it for that.” I said, “Yes, you can. Stop dollying the cameras up, get handheld, and write the damn thing before you do it.” They used to just keep filming and filming, and then sit and edit it.
By the time they were done, it lasted for six seasons and 144 episodes. Johnny Carson said once that In Search Of has been on so long, we were now searching for car keys because we had gone through Sasquatch, Bigfoot, Yeti, Swamp Monster. We went all over the world, and we often went in Alan's backyard and filmed. I had to do that with my left hand, because that wasn't my job really, but I did it because it was fun.
“I don't know about you, but I would rather starve than make this kind of deal”
I went to CBS for a year as general manager of their cable network and left to become president of Lexington Broadcasting to turn it around. The numbers are simple. When I got there, they were doing $22 million a year, and when I left 14 or 18 months later, they were doing $100 million.
I got a call from Phil Geier, who was president of Interpublic Group, which was the world's largest agency, and he said, “I think what you did for Gray Television is tremendous. Could you do the same for me?” I said, “I most certainly could. But I don't want to be an employee again; I want a piece of equity.” So I put together a business plan that said Omnicom would own 60% of our new company, and the management team I put together would own 40%.
The day comes for the signing of the deal. Phil goes in the other room, his business guy goes in with my lawyer, George Ryan, and he seems to be gone kind of a long time. Forty minutes later, he comes back out. George says, “Bob, I don't think we can sign this deal right now. We got some problems I have to discuss. He changed that deal.” I came back to tell my wife, Peggy, and she says, “I don't know about you, but I would rather starve than make this kind of deal.”
I called my partners the next day and said, “We're going to try and do this on our own. We don’t have any money, but you know what I got? $50,000 in my kid's college fund.” I went to Marine Midland Bank. We had some relationships, so they would give us a credit line for $200,000. We got the cheapest rent you could find—$8.50 a foot on Park South and 29th Street, which now goes for like $90. We get beat-up old furniture from secondhand, a phone line secondhand, all kinds of things.
After a very difficult year, we scrounged up enough product. We distributed Live Aid in America, because nobody else would even touch it. Imagine calling up a station and going, “Yes, we want you to take a concert on AIDS.”
“Oh yeah? What day?”
“Well, it's a Saturday and Sunday. It's 24 hours.”
I said, “Are you kidding me?” But we pulled it off, and we had a lot of help from some pretty big names. It probably cost us money, but it was helpful. It put us on the map.
On launching Jerry Springer
I had a five-year stint at Multimedia. They had Phil Donahue, they had Sally Jessy Raphael, and that was about it. Donahue was going to retire, and he could not be replaced. He was contributing a million [dollars] a week. Springer was supposed to be the answer to Donahue.
Springer was a lawyer. He was a mayor, a very smart guy, and a gentleman. I had two executive producers that just couldn't make the show pop, and Jerry finds this guy, Richard Dominick, and he changed the direction of the show.
When I was running for office, someone asked me, “Do you take responsibility for the decline of American culture by putting somebody like Springer on the air?” and I said, “You know? Yes, and I regret it. But it’s done.” I had seven or eight shows that I wouldn't let on air. You saw what was on air and can imagine how bad these were, but when I left, they ran them back-to-back, and the numbers went through the roof.
“There are about three guys that run this place, and you ain't one of them.”
I’d never been to a fundraiser, and never particularly liked politicians. I took a swim down here [in Long Island] with Mike Long, who was the chairman of the Conservative Party of New York State, and I said to Mike, “Who is running against Anthony Weiner? This guy is an absolute horror,” and he said, “Nobody, but we are looking for someone who is a businessman. Maybe somebody who’s retired.” I realized what he was doing and thought, I’ll do that. I think this could be fun. I lost, but a lot of people came together, and they had a pretty good showing. After Weiner’s resignation, Mike told me to run again, and I was elected.
I learned that it takes a lot of people to get this thing done. I was in Congress about a week and a fellow named Dan Lungren said, “Bob, you're going to find out that there are about three guys that run this place, and you ain't one of them.”
I'm more optimistic after the political experience. Part of that was from when I went [with a congressional delegation] to Afghanistan. They put you with people who might be your constituents, and these guys were from a unit from Montauk. It was just like the same guys I knew in 1962 when we were in Fort Dix. They did their job professionally and purposefully. I was very encouraged. Not only there, but I saw soldiers in Kyrgyzstan and a couple of other places. I think we can be proud of the younger generation.