CNN: a Key to Global News
24-hour service now shapes programming and fuels the information boom. TELEVISION
WHEN it first went on the air, detractors dismissed CNN as ``Chicken Noodle News.'' Ten years later, it's the competition that's stewing. A decade after the world's first 24-hour TV news service started up on June 1, 1980, the Atlanta-based Cable News Network is widely viewed not only as a major player in world TV journalism but a leading shaper of programming.Skip to next paragraph
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Despite its relatively low ratings and continuing criticism that its coverage is shallow, many observers herald CNN as a key engine in a global information revolution - a force that contributed to the domino-chain collapse of communism across Eastern Europe [see article on facing page].
``CNN has become the first place to turn to for breaking stories of importance around the globe,'' says Benjamin Bagdikian, a media critic and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. ``They've given the world a round-the-clock video news wire that nobody thought would work and turned the network news business on its ear.''
``CNN is perhaps the most interesting success story of cable television,'' says Howard Stringer, president of the CBS Broadcast Group. ``It's carved its own niche that is unmistakable. It's here to stay as a significant part of worldwide news coverage.''
Cable-linked to 55 million American homes, CNN's average nightly viewership hovers somewhere between 219,000 and 384,000 homes.
By contrast, ABC's ``World News Tonight'' is seen on average in 10.2 million homes.
Looked at another way, of the total time Americans spent watching all TV news sources the first quarter of this year, A.C. Nielsen says CNN accounts for 27%, with ABC getting 28.3%, CBS 27.5%, and NBC 17.2%.
But looked at another way - by adding up the percentages of time Americans spend watching each TV news source - an A.C. Nielsen Company count gives CNN 27 percent for the first quarter of this year, ABC 28.3 percent, CBS 27.5 percent, and NBC 17.2 percent.
Citing the San Francisco earthquake, the US intervention in Panama, and demonstrations in China, Don Tomlinson, a professor of journalism at Texas A&M University, says ``CNN has taken the lead in deciding where the next trouble spot will be and in a large number of cases embarrassed the networks dramatically.''
Hooked to 10 million cable homes outside the US, plus 250,000 hotels, embassies, businesses, and stock exchanges, CNN has become an important news source for decisionmakers in 90 countries.
Known regular watchers include Poland's Lech Walesa, Cuba's Fidel Castro, United Nations Secretary-General Perez De Cuellar, Jordan's King Hussein, and Libya's Qaddafi.
``The old notion of the networks owning stories and covering them exclusively is gone, because CNN is indisputably the first port of call for viewers,'' acknowledges CBS's Mr. Stringer. ``That suggests to us that our [network] role is much more to add perspective and context.''
Even those who've never seen CNN, can observe its growing influence on network news:
Anchors who fly to the far reaches of the globe.
A push for more in-depth, investigative, and feature-length stories at the networks (like ABC's ``American Agenda'' or ``Person of the Week'' and NBC's ``Assignment America,'' or investigative ``Spotlight.''
More foreign news stories on local stations.
More frequent interruptions of entertainment programming for ``news updates.''
Major cost-cutting at networks, including the firing of personnel and the closing of bureaus around the world.
``When General Electric bought NBC, the executives came in and wanted to know why we can't do things as cheap as CNN,'' recalls Lawrence Grossman, former president of NBC News, now a senior fellow at the Gannett Center for Media Studies.
Other network changes include the sharing of everything from exit-poll data to film of the latest hostage release and announcements like the one from NBC May 8 that it is offering a 24-hour news service to its 209 (and dwindling) affiliated stations.
CNN premi`ered to a potential audience of 1.7 million homes, interrupting its first commercial with a live update on the attempted assassination of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan.