Transcription associated with a terminal deoxynucleotide transferase gene initiator element is shown to respond to the transcription factor GAL4-VP16 both in vivo and in vitro. High-level transcription requires both an intact initiator element and bound activator. Transcription from this initiator-directed promoter is synergistic in vivo in that five GAL4 DNA binding sites yield 36 times the expression of a single site. Promoters dominated by initiator and TATA elements respond similarly to several GAL4-based activators, including GAL4-Sp1, GAL4-CTF, GAL4(1-147), GAL4-p53, GAL4-C/EBP, and GAL4-ER(EF), as well as GAL4-VP16 and Sp1. These and other similarities suggest that primary activation of TATA- and initiator-dominated promoters occurs at common steps. Since the initial assembly steps do not appear to be common for the two promoter types, the results place interesting constraints on models for how activation occurs.