Prior to the launch of the channel in 1988, the name Turner Network Television had been utilized by Turner Broadcasting as a syndication service for various sporting events, including two exhibition games from 1982 organized by the NFL Players Association during the NFL strike of that year, and the first Goodwill Games, organized by Turner himself, in 1986.
The channel launched at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, October 3, 1988 with a pre-recorded performance of The Star Spangled Banner, which traditionally played during the launch of a new Turner-owned network. Its inaugural telecast was the first half the 1939 classic film Gone with the Wind, a film which TNT founder Ted Turner had acquired the rights; the second half aired the following night at the same time, and then shown in its entirety that Sunday. It was said that the film was chosen as the channel's first program because it was Turner's favorite movie. It would also serve as the first program aired on sister channel Turner Classic Movies, when it debuted in April 1994. Incidentally, it had its premiere held in Atlanta, Turner's hometown and the headquarters of the channel's corporate parent, Turner Broadcasting System. The city served as the setting for the film.
Operations were set up in the former CNN Headline News facilities at TBS’s Techwood Drive complex, after Headline News’ move to CNN Center.
TNT was initially a vehicle for older movies and television shows, but slowly began to add original programming and newer reruns. When TNT began broadcasting older film releases from the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer library acquired by Turner as a result of his sale of the MGM film studio to Kirk Kerkorian, the channel caused controversy due to its airings of colorized versions of many classics that were originally filmed in black-and-white.
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.
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.
Until 1998, TNT also aired 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 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 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
TNT logo from 2001 to 2016
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". 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 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.