In the land of grits, a TV trend is born

Launch of Turner South next month could herald rise of regional

Picture this: Southern belles and gents screaming "I want my STV."

The launch of Turner South, the first attempt in the US at a distinctly regional network, will offer six Southern states a chance to view their backyards in small-screen technicolor.

But when the station starts Oct. 1, it could also inaugurate new media possibilities that resonate well beyond the South: regionalism on a grand scale. Turner South could offer a blueprint for more launches of regional networks from New England to the Midwest.

Yet the South may be the perfect area to test such an endeavor, considering its rich history and diverse cultures. From the rolling hills of North Carolina to the swamps of Louisiana, the region oozes with enough stories to keep a network hopping around the clock.

And that's just what TV mogul Ted Turner plans to do with his Atlanta-based network - offer Southerners a chance to watch themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"The South may be losing the sense of regionalism as the country becomes more and more interconnected," says Ralph Braseth of the Student Media Center at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "A station such as this helps keep that regionalism - and that difference from everyone else - alive. Face it, the South likes being different."

The new channel will be available in the six states - North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee - where Turner Broadcasting's other channels have met with phenomenal success.

Turner South will offer original programming, sitcoms, movies, regional news, and sports - all concentrated on the South.

"If we are successful here, we will definitely look at putting this type of channel in other states," says David Rudolph, director of business development for Turner South. "We may go into a Northern region."

But Betsy Ross and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz" probably won't have the same lure as a Scarlett O'Hara network.

"I wish they would offer stock in the station," says Mr. Braseth. "The potential for an audience is so great. People are so self interested in the South."

Initially, Turner South will only seek Southern subscribers. Station officials say that while the network may grow in the South, eventually including Texas and Florida, it will never reach the entire nation.

But media critics and historians say the network may want to pause and reconsider the possible success of such a station for one simple reason: The South sells. The land of dripping Spanish moss and fried-green tomatoes has been charted out by fabulists for centuries. Dixie's air of mystery, magnolias, and moonlight constantly intrigues even on the cusp of the 21st century.

"The best creation of the new South was the Old South," says Susan Glisson, director of the University of Mississippi's Center for Southern Studies. "It certainly has proven commercially viable down here to sell the Old South to outsiders."

Even in television's infancy, the South became a diverse, at times almost imaginary, locale bubbling with gracious women, harmless hillbillies, kissing cousins, and country bumpkins. People loved it. On the big screen, the region reflected romantic danger with belles in hoop skirts awaiting their Confederate soldiers on white horses. The concept proved a popular seller. By 1940, 25 million people had seen "Gone With the Wind."

In these modern times, Southerners, regardless of how much they progress with cell phones, beepers, and the Internet, still crave the bygone days.

"People in the South want to remember their heritage ... and that includes the Civil War," says Braseth. "A television network that can do this will have a gold mine."

But Braseth cautions: "There's a fine line between classy and Southern tacky." He worries that Turner South could become a joke if the network only shows "Smokey and the Bandit" reruns and pictures of pink flamingos and lawn jockeys. If that happens, the concept will surely backfire, he adds.

But Turner South officials say never fear. Tobie Pate, senior vice president of TBS Superstation and Turner South, insists the station has a down-home feel with a touch of class.

Turner South executives tout "Southern Living Presents" as the network's crown jewel. Based on the popular magazine, the half-hour weekly show will feature segments on Southern homes, travel, food, and gardening. That magazine was once only available in limited areas. Now, Southern Living - the country's largest regional magazine - reaches nearly every newsstand in the country.

"Whether it is a large town or small, rural, or urban, there are distinct traits of the South: friendliness, great climate, and the pride that comes from being from the South," says Mr. Rudolph.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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