CNN turns 20

What will the next decade hold for the worlds' 24-hour news channel?

Twenty years ago today, television news changed from something people watched over the dinner hour, to something they watched at any hour.

On June 1, 1980, when Ted Turner threw the switch on his Cable News Network -the first all-news network -critics scoffed. They wondered who would tune in to round-the-clock news, especially from a scrappy upstart based in the media backwoods of Atlanta.

But with its coverage of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Gulf War in 1991, CNN not only drew people in, it kept them watching. It took breaking news and wove it into the fabric of the Information Age.

What started as the "Chicken Noodle Network," is now "an eminent and respected news organization," says Everette Dennis, professor of media management at Fordham University in New York.

In its first 10 years, CNN shook things up -contributing to, among other things, the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. But its second decade brought the event in 1991 that arguably put it on the map.

"Before the Gulf War, it was this unknown little cable network that nobody was watching," says long-time anchor Bobbie Battista, "and after the Gulf War, suddenly everyone is watching."

"It became the war channel," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University in New York.

He says the other networks were not in a position to broadcast all war, all the time, noting, "CNN had planted a flag at the top of the broadcast news mountain."

Although CNN struggles in the ratings when such major events aren't unfolding -which has caused a bit of an identity crisis for it in recent years - its influence on everything from journalism to politics worldwide marches on.

In the last decade, it's spawned "the CNN effect," which, researchers say, for better and worse, indicates that live television coverage can play a role in how diplomacy is carried out. It sets the agenda, for example, by forcing policymakers to deal with what is being covered, even if it is not the most important issue.

In the media, more "Analysis" logos have popped up in newspapers around the United States as they and noncable news networks are no longer the public's primary source of news. CNN-imitators are also growing, with NBC and Fox now in the game at the national level, and local channels in the US and as far away as the Middle East.

Elsewhere, thanks to syndication, the network has come to be the main source for international reporting in this country, feeding not only its channels, but local stations as well.

"CNN is now sort of like [the Associated Press] used to be. It is pretty much the only reliable US purveyor of footage from abroad," says Mark Crispin Miller, director of the Project on Media Ownership at New York University. "It has been quite some time since the other networks maintained a viable network of foreign bureaus."

Although the network gets the majority of its revenues from its domestic operations, observers say its real impact has been on bringing independent coverage overseas, where it has a much larger following and different programming than in the US. According to CNN, it reaches twice as many people overseas as it does in the US, and is available to more than one billion people overall.

"What CNN brings to the party is a legitimate and significant worldwide news gathering operation," says Larry Grossman, former head of NBC News. "CNN was there first. It is the brand name outside the US," he says, whereas inside the US, the network is facing "huge and growing competition."

Unlike when it began, in the last five years the network's audience has been stretched even thinner as other all-news networks have debuted, and new high-tech ways of delivery have emerged.

"While CNN is very influential, important, and profitable," says Mr. Grossman, "it's going to have its hands full."

Earlier this year, CNN's parent company since 1996, Time-Warner, announced it will be merging with Internet powerhouse AOL.

Assuming it goes through, some observers say the merger could spread the company itself even thinner as it tries to feed CNN's content across more channels. Whatever the effect on CNN's resources, the marriage of AOL and Time-Warner guarantees the network a place at the table in the Information Age.

"The AOL merger will enable CNN to move into the digital world, the world of interactivity, far more rapidly and far more extensively than we otherwise would have been able to do," says the network's CEO, Tom Johnson, in an interview in his office in the organization's mall-like complex in downtown Atlanta.

Mr. Johnson says he plans to add 500 more people to the Interactive division this year, moving toward a time when the Internet and television are expected to converge.

"A team is currently being assembled which has as its responsibility the transition between the two," he says. "We are bringing together and merging the two sides, because clearly the interactive television set of tomorrow will be able to give you data, audio, video, but the same is true of your PC."

As with most media companies, CNN has already positioned itself on the Web, capitalizing on the information available from its radio networks and half-dozen channels, including those dedicated to finance, sports, and one in Spanish. It's created 13 Web sites since 1995, seven in other languages with more coming this year.

The Internet is proving to be one answer to reaching broader and younger audiences. Numbers from Media Metrix, the Internet tracking firm, show that in April, CNN drew 785,000 different people daily on average to all its Web sites, not including international visitors.

"They have many times more page views per day than the 300,000 viewers of any television show on CNN. Even the most widely watched broadcast on CNN [Larry King Live] only gets about a million [viewers]," says Ralph Begleiter, a longtime CNN world affairs correspondent who is now teaching at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Though it's always had low ratings, the network is particularly challenged now, with major news events few and far between. According to Nielson Media Research, its viewership has been flat to slipping over the last decade.

"They're still not competitive with the networks after all these years," says Mr. Dennis at Fordham. (During the evening news hour, CNN might have several hundred thousand viewers while ABC, NBC, and CBS are watched by 6 million to 10 million viewers.)

It's a problem some observers and former employees say has led CNN to imitate, both in appearance and in programming, the domestic networks it set out to leave behind. At the same time, the network is fending off ongoing criticism - both from within and without - about the depth of its coverage and focus on live events.

"It hasn't been the mission Ted Turner began with for a long long time," says Mr. Begleiter. "Today, and I think this has been the case for most of the 90s ... CNN's mission is somehow to compete with broadcast television for viewers, for ratings, and obviously for revenues and profits."

He says coverage internationally in recent years has changed, too. "It's a general mindset: 'We don't want in depth coverage. What we want is people standing under bombs, saying, The bombs are falling all around me.' Sadly, that's what it's been moving to."

Johnson, who says he knows he needs more investigative reporting, but doesn't want to further tax his current staff, says he's no fan of the ratings system, calling it "the greatest enemy of good programming that exists." He says it drives network news heads to "do more of the O.J. [Simpson]-type stories and the tabloid-type stories. We've been guilty of some of that ourselves."

But ratings can't be ignored, he says. "A cable news organization is blessed by having half of its revenues coming from subscribers. But the half that comes from advertising is affected by the ratings." That said, he won't concede the network's domestic presence. "I think we occupy a very special niche."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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