Prior to the launch of the channel in 1988, the Turner Network Television name had been utilized by the Turner Broadcasting System for an ad-hoc syndication service which produced and distributed various sporting events for carriage on Turner's Atlanta, Georgia superstation WTBS (channel 17, now WPCH-TV, which was separated from its national cable feed TBS in October 2007) as well as broadcast television stations throughout the United States.
The Turner Network Television syndication service launched in 1982 to produce two exhibition games organized by the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) during the , which were broadcast on WTBS and its national superstation feed. (The agreement with the NFLPA originally called for 18 games to be broadcast by WTBS on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights during the originally proposed strike season, but was reduced to the exhibition games amid lawsuits filed by the against Turner Broadcasting and the NFLPA union.) The TNT syndication service also produced and distributed the first Goodwill Games – organized by Robert E. "Ted" Turner III himself, in response to the Olympic boycotts involving the United States and the Soviet Union of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics – in 1986.
On October 6, 1987, Ted Turner announced the launch of Turner Network Television (TNT) – his fifth basic cable network venture, following SuperStation TBS, CNN, Headline News (now HLN) and the short-lived Cable Music Channel – in a keynote address at the opening day of the Atlantic Cable Show in Atlantic City, New Jersey, stating that the channel would center around major television events. Turner originally estimated that TNT would be offered to cable systems at a monthly rate of 10¢ per subscriber at launch (increasing to 20¢ per subscriber per month by March 1989), with 10 minutes of advertising being carried each hour (three to four minutes of which would be given to prospective cable systems for local advertising). Turner Broadcasting struggled to obtain carriage commitments from various cable providers to commence with the proposed service's launch plans, putting uncertain TNT's fate. Turner also entered into preliminary discussions with NBC Inc. to purchase a 25% stake in the company, with the prospect of using NBC's financial and programming expertise to get TNT off the ground; however, such discussions terminated by January 1988 without a resolution.
Former logo, used from October 3, 1988 until June 12, 2001; from 1992 onward, this logo was accompanied by a yellow oval background.
By February 1988, Turner had disclosed that TNT's programming would focus around movies from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film library – which Turner acquired as a result of his 1986 sale of the MGM film studio to Kirk Kerkorian – and major television events, including made-for-cable movies, high-profile specials, sports events, documentaries and miniseries. Cable systems were given the option of substituting a superstation (other than SuperStation WTBS) or other out-of-market television station for TNT upon launch – originally slated for July 1 of that year – without incurring any copyright liabilities for carriage of the distant signal for the second half of 1988. However, the proposed launch date was delayed because it would have presented several issues, including obtaining channel clearances and assembling a programming schedule in such a contracted timespan, and the unfavorability of promoting a service during the summer (when television networks typically programmed reruns). On March 7, Turner Broadcasting System's board of directors unanimously approved Ted Turner's plan for Turner Network Television, with October 3 as the channel's proposed launch date. Plans called for TNT to offer 250 nights of original and live sports programming per year within five years of its debut.
The channel launched at 7:55 p.m. Eastern Time on October 3, 1988, with TNT founder Ted Turner delivering a message about the channel's launch and programming, followed by a pre-recorded performance of The Star Spangled Banner, which traditionally played during the launch of a new Turner-owned network. Its inaugural telecast (which followed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern) was the first half the 1939 classic film Gone with the Wind, a film which Ted Turner had acquired the rights; the second half aired the following night at the same time (both halves were repeat at 11:00 p.m. Eastern on their respective nights), with the film then being shown in its entirety that Sunday. It was said that Gone with the Wind was chosen as the channel's inaugural program because it was Turner's favorite movie. (Gone with the Wind would also serve as the first program aired on sister channel Turner Classic Movies, when it debuted in April 1994.) Incidentally, the film was set and had its premiere held in Atlanta, Turner's hometown and the headquarters of the channel's corporate parent, Turner Broadcasting System.
TNT was initially a vehicle for older movies and television shows to which Turner either already held rights or acquired specifically for the channel; these films made up the majority of TNT's programming during its first six years of operation. The initial schedule also consisted of animated and live-action children's programs (airing Sunday through Fridays from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time and Monday through Saturdays from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time), with western series on Saturday mornings and a limited schedule of other classic television series in select other time periods. In its early years, TNT caused controversy among film critics and fans for its airings of colorized versions of many classics that were originally filmed in black-and-white.
The channel launched with an estimated 17 million subscribers, its initial coverage totaling 6.8 times that of the largest previous cable network launch (VH1, which launched on January 1, 1985 with 2.5 million homes estimated to have initially received that channel). The channel's operations were based inside office space at Turner Broadcasting's Techwood Drive complex in midtown Atlanta that formerly served as the facilities for CNN Headline News from its launch as CNN2 in January 1982 until it and parent network CNN moved their operations into the CNN Center downtown in 1987. Turner Entertainment Networks president Gerald Hogan stated around the time of its launch that TNT would eventually become "the first cable network to directly challenge the three broadcast networks," through the production of original programming that would be of "a quality level equal to and [..] significantly better" than programs carried on the major American broadcast television networks; as such, the channel slowly began to add original programming and newer reruns within two years of its launch.
The channel debuted its first original made-for-TV film on March 8, 1989, when TNT premiered Nightbreaker, an Arms Race-era drama starring Martin Sheen (who also co-produced the film) and Emilio Estevez.
In 1995, TNT debuted WCW Monday Nitro, which assumed the distinction as the flagship program of the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling from WCW Saturday Night, which debuted on sister channel TBS in 1992 and ran on that channel until 2000. At one point, Monday Nitro was regularly the highest-rated weekly program on cable television . The program beat Monday Night Raw, the flagship show of the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment), in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks from 1996 to 1998.
On September 22, 1995, Time Warner – a New York City-based media company formed in 1989 through the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Bros. corporate parent Warner Communications – reached an agreement to acquire the Turner Broadcasting System and its associated properties (including TNT, TBS, CNN, Headline News and Cartoon Network as well as Turner Entertainment) for $7.5 billion; the deal would also expand Time Warner's pay television holdings, as it had owned HBO and sister premium service Cinemax as well as cable television provider Time Warner Cable since the Time-Warner Communications merger six years prior. (Time Warner and predecessor Warner Communications had owned an 18% interest in Turner Broadcasting since 1987, as part of a cable television industry-backed bailout of the company amid severe financial issues.) Under the terms, Turner would acquire an approximate 10% interest in Time Warner as well as oversee its subscription network group – comprising the Turner and Home Box Office units and its minority interests in Comedy Central and E! – and hold a position on the company's board of directors (which he retained until he stepped down from the company in February 2006) upon the merger's closure. The merger received regulatory approval on September 12, 1996; the Turner–Time Warner deal was finalized one month later on October 10, forming what at the time was the largest media company in the world.
The channel was also known for its late night programming. One such program was MonsterVision, a Saturday night B movie showcase that aired from 1991 to 2000. Often the series had special themes, such as "Godzilla Bash '94", which was an all-day marathon of Godzilla movies. Penn & Teller served as occasional guest hosts during its early years; and in 1996, MonsterVision found a permanent host in cult personality and drive-in movie aficionado Joe Bob Briggs, who hosted a pair of more contemporary horror films each week, such as Friday the 13th Part 2 and Wes Craven's New Nightmare. During the wraparound segments within each film, Briggs provided a running commentary, trivia, off-color jokes, and a drive-in total, as well as jokes at the expense of TNT's Standards & Practices department regarding the heavy censorship of the featured movies. This running joke culminated in a Friday the 13th all-night Halloween marathon in 1998, where it was implied that Ted Turner was out to kill him.
Into the 1990s, TNT continued to air cartoons from the Turner library, such as The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, the DePatie-Freleng Pink Panther cartoons, Dexter's Laboratory, and The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest as part of a daily block called TNT Toons. The Rudy and Gogo World Famous Cartoon Show, which ran from 1995 to 1997, was an original children's program on the channel featuring Warner Bros., MGM, and Popeye shorts, hosted by a titular pair of a marionette and a nanny goat. In January 1996, the channel began scaling back its children's programming amid competition in that market from Nickelodeon and Turner-owned sister channel Cartoon Network; at that time, TNT discontinued its late-afternoon block of animated series in favor of airing acquired drama series such as Starsky & Hutch and In the Heat of the Night. In 1998, TNT dropped all of its remaining cartoons, relegating those shows to Cartoon Network. Most of the animated series and shorts that were dropped would also serve as the core of Boomerang, a subscription channel devoted to classic cartoons that launched on April 1, 2000.
During the 1990s, TNT scheduled a weekday afternoon block that included Due South, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and Babylon 5. In 1998, TNT made efforts to increase its original programming, bumping its production budget by 146%, with programming production costs running in the range of $175 million to $200 million by 2000. That year, TNT took over production of the fifth and final season of Babylon 5 from the Prime Time Entertainment Network after the ad-hoc syndication block ceased operations. The following year, TNT produced the Babylon 5 spinoff series Crusade, which was canceled after 13 episodes, as TNT management decided that science fiction did not fit the channel's brand identity. In 2001, TNT debuted what became its most successful original series at the time, Witchblade, which ran for two seasons, ending in 2002.
Shift towards drama
Former TNT logo, used from 2001 to 2016; the current logo is loosely based on this design.
On June 12, 2001, TNT underwent an extensive rebrand, with the introduction of a new logo designed by
Trollbäck + Company as well as a new slogan, "We Know Drama," a repositioning of the network that Bradley Siegel, then-president of Turner Entertainment Networks, explained had emerged through extensive focus group research with frequent TNT viewers. The slogan emphasized the channel's new focus on dramatic programming, including sports and off-network syndicated dramas such as Law & Order, NYPD Blue, ER and Judging Amy. In addition, NASCAR coverage moved to TNT from TBS starting with the 2001 season, as Turner Broadcasting System management believed that it would fit more with TNT's new format than TBS.
On January 1, 2003, TNT launched a substitute feed called TNT Plus, although it does not appear this was ever reflected in the channel's on-air identity. The apparent sole purpose of its establishment was to force renegotiations with subscription providers to increase carriage fees – with some multiple system operators suggesting that Turner was seeking a 10% increase in subscriber fees for the channel – to help pay for TNT's new NBA and NASCAR contracts well before the channel's distribution agreements with providers were scheduled to come up for renewal. In theory, TNT Plus was to have been the sole carrier of Turner's NBA and NASCAR coverage from that point forward, while any providers still carrying the original TNT would have seen replacement programming instead. Although it appears that Comcast did not immediately sign on to carry TNT Plus, there is no evidence that Turner had actually pulled its sports programming from the "original" TNT.
On December 7, 2008, TNT unveiled an update to its logo, displaying it mainly in a silver or sometimes gold beveling. The "We know drama" tagline remained, but the channel added more of a focus on its original series and announced plans to carry three nights of original programming a week during primetime, starting in 2009. In 2012, TNT rebranded itself with a new slogan: "Drama, Period." (visually displayed as "Drama.," with the TNT logo serving as the period symbol), with the logo being recolored to match the themes of its shows.
On May 14, 2014, TNT altered its on-air branding to "TNT Drama" and introduced a new slogan, "Boom". The branding campaign reflects the channel's refocusing towards action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, suspense series alongside its slate of crime dramas. The channel purchased subscription-television rights in September for the next five Marvel Studios movies starting with Avengers: Age of Ultron. In 2016, TNT changed its logo after 15 years in order to catch up with sister channel TBS as they also rebranded their logo on October 31, 2015, earlier than TNT did.
On October 22, 2016, AT&T announced an offer to acquire Time Warner for $108.7 billion, including debt it would assume from the latter; the merger would bring Time Warner's various media properties, including TNT, under the same corporate umbrella as AT&T's telecommunications holdings, including satellite provider DirecTV. Time Warner shareholders approved the merger on February 15, 2017; however on February 28, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that his agency will not review the deal, leaving the review to the U.S. Department of Justice. On November 20, 2017, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against AT&T and Time Warner in an attempt to block the merger, citing antitrust concerns surrounding the transaction. The proposed merger – which had already been approved by the European Commission and Mexican, Chilean and Brazilian regulatory authorities – was affirmed by court ruling on June 12, 2018, after District of Columbia U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon ruled in favor of AT&T in a lawsuit. The merger closed two days later on June 14, with the company becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of AT&T under the renamed parent company WarnerMedia.