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AT&T selling CNN Center, eventually relocating CNN to Ted Turner Campus in Midtown

One of Turner Broadcasting’s biggest bases is at CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
One of Turner Broadcasting’s biggest bases is at CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

A key segment of Ted Turner’s former empire is going to disappear: the downtown CNN Center.

AT&T’s WarnerMedia has decided to sell the offices there to an undisclosed buyer but change won’t happen immediately. WarnerMedia will lease back the space and keep it for at least another five years before centralizing CNN’s operations in Atlanta at the Midtown Ted Turner campus. Some employees will also end up at the Williams Street campus across the highway where Adult Swim is based.

“Downtown Atlanta has seen great investment and is quickly becoming an entertainment destination. The CNN Center is of great value to a third party that specializes in such developments,” said Pascal Desroches, chief financial officer for WarnerMedia in a memo to employees Monday.

The memo added: “This move in no way should suggest that WarnerMedia is less committed to Atlanta.”

WarnerMedia has about 6,000 employees in Atlanta, a number that has not changed significantly since the company took over for Time Warner in 2018. A spokeswoman did not reveal how many of those employees work at CNN specifically.

CNN Center has for many years become a regular stop for tourists. On May 29, protesters gathered there to protest George Floyd’s death and defaced the CNN sign at the entrance. (CNN cleaned the graffiti up the next morning.)

May 29, 2020 -  Atlanta -  After a peaceful march the Georgia State Capitol that swelled into the hundreds,  protestors returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN center where some confronted police, who sprayed some demonstrators with pepper spray.  They carried signs and chanted their messages of outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.     Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution
May 29, 2020 - Atlanta - After a peaceful march the Georgia State Capitol that swelled into the hundreds, protestors returned to the area around the Centennial Olympic Park and CNN center where some confronted police, who sprayed some demonstrators with pepper spray. They carried signs and chanted their messages of outrage over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

CNN offices at CNN Center have been largely empty since the pandemic began, with just a skeletal crew on site. But AT&T said plans to move CNN out of the space had started years ago under Time Warner.

The 24-hour news network created by Turner debuted on the Techwood campus in Midtown in 1980 but eventually outgrew that space and moved downtown in 1987, a symbolic move by Turner himself. Turner has his own penthouse suite a couple of blocks from CNN Center and his name is attached to one of the roads nearby.

Frank Sesno, CNN’s White House correspondent at the time, recalled visiting the new offices at CNN Center for the first time in 1987. “A senior executive told me, ‘We’ve done grown up.’ This was tangible proof CNN had made it. It moved into this big shiny fancy CNN Center attached to the Omni Hotel.”

David Rust, a photographer at CNN from its inception until last year, said he remembered that part of downtown in the late 1980s as “pretty unsafe. A lot of unsavory characters down there.”

But the move, Sesno noted, “was a spark that catalyzed development there. It’s right where Centennial Olympic Park was built. Over time, it helped the rebirth of downtown.”

But after Turner sold CNN to New York-based Time Warner in 1996, a gradual power shift began away from Atlanta. When New York resident Jeff Zucker took over CNN in 2013, he moved all CNN weekday anchors to New York. WarnerMedia invested big money into new facilities for CNN at Hudson Yards last year in Manhattan.

“The center of gravity for some time has been moving to New York,” Sesno said. “A lot of what was taking place in Techwood got moved out when Turner Broadcasting was decentralized. There’s space there now.” Techwood was renamed Ted Turner Campus late last year.

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Credit: RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com. Ted Turner after the Techwood campus was named after him on December 6, 2019.

To Sesno, there is a certain irony that CNN is moving back to Techwood. “What’s old is new again,” he said. “But it goes home in a different way. Obviously, it’s been absorbed into a large corporate whole. And it’s not an insurgent anymore. It’s mainstream media.”

He said this is definitely a negative hit to downtown, with the eventual loss of the CNN Studio Tour. “But the tour wasn’t what it used to be,” he said. “People were touring the brand, not the broadcast,” given that most of the star power was 866 miles north. (The tour is currently not running given the pandemic and WarnerMedia, in its memo, said it wasn’t sure if it is coming back or not. Once they move everything to Midtown, the tour will be over for sure.)

Explore>>RELATED: My story about the CNN Studio Tour from 2014

Currently, CNN Center is home to HLN, CNN.com, CNN International and portions of CNN’s production operations. But key executives and all the weekday anchors are based in New York or D.C.

The Ted Turner Campus is where some TNT, TBS, truTV, TCM and Cartoon Networks operations reside. All NBA on TNT shows are shot there. And there’s a huge studio for eLeague competitive video game play.

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