Cable TV; Where the news never ends
Atlanta — Four a m. is not my normal TV-viewing hour. But here it was on the morning of July 1 and I had awakened prematurely from a restful sleep. After a fruitless attempt to recapture that elusive state of sooting fantasy, I decided to return to the world of harsh reality and switched on my television set.
Instantly, I found myself immersed in a fascinating report on one of hte most important and controversial issues of the day.
What was on Manhattan Cable TV at 4 a.m.? A few old movies a Reuters news wire, a tired rerun of an electronic evangelist meeting. But, then, on Channel N, ther e was something unusual, the comparatively new (then one month old) 24 -hour Cable News Network our of Atlanta. Even through the maze of my faulty local reception (in many areas even cable will not deliver a very good signal) and my early-morning fuzzy-headedness, I was able to realize that something extraordinary was going on.
It was the morning after the United States Supreme Court decision which limited abortion-on-demand. Only a few hours later, now, on national television via satellite, I was seeing the rerun of an unexpectedly informative discussion program covering all aspects of the decision and its impact on all levels of our society. It was "Freeman Reports," a nightly discussion show hosted by a superb reporter named Sandi Freeman, who seems to combine some of the most effective and winning characteristics of both the PBS "MacNeil/Lehrer Report" and the NBC "Phil Donahue Show."
In addition to satellite interviews and two-way discussions with representatives of a variety of groups, including the National Right to life Committee and the National Abortion Rights League, there were intelligent, probing questions evoking satisfyingly knowledgeable answers. Meantime, the show was interrupted several times for live news bulletins and special reports which brought the subject completely up to the moment.
A few hours later, when the local daily morning newspaper was delivered to my door, I found myself a full half-day ahead of the print story.
"Wow," I thought to myself and resolved to say so in print one day soon, "might it be that commercial television has been completely off base in TV programming till now? Maybe, instead of 24 hours to entertainment interrupted occasionally by news, what television should really be is 24 hours of news interrupted occasionally by entertainment!"
So I trekked southward to the Turner Broadcasting System Inc. here to check out the much-publicized Cable News Network. I wanted to see if it really might prove to be a harbinger of Future TV.
The highly publicized, eccentric and garrulous Robert E. (Ted) Turner, known affectionately around here as "the mouth of the South," was in Newport, R.I., coping with the mast of his America's Cup yacht, and was not available to discuss his financially shaky $25-million-per-year gamble with CNN, modern television's most revolutionary news project. However, I talked to CNN president Reese Schonfeld, who not only applauded my tentative evaluation, but also asked: "What makes you believe the news should be interrupted at allm by entertainment?"
The Turner operation (he also owns WTBS, the satellite- transmitted "superstation," supported by advertising and nationally available free to cable systems) is located in a converted country club in the heart of Atlanta. The swimming pool has been filled in with an "economy" vegetable garden (under the supervision of CNN's on-camera economist-garden expert), and there is an impressive dish (satellite receiver) garden in back of the converted Gone-With- The-Wind Tara-like building that houses around 400 electronic journalists and technicians involved in both operations -- as well as more than $10 million worth of state-of- the -art video equipment.
When CNN went on the air on June 1, it was prepared to give its 2 million subscribing households 168 consecutive hours a week of news and information. It had a two-hour prime-time newscast at 8 p.m. each week-night, and blocks of financial, sports, and feature news scattered throughout the day. These were interspersed with a two-hour midday newscast and up-to-the-minute news reports each hour.
There were seven news bureaus in the US and many foreign bureaus, most of them jointly operated with various news services.
Most important was the much-heralded capacity to go live nationally any hour of the day or night.
Many varied and sometimes impressive names such as Daniel Schorr, William E. Simon, George Watson, Richard Reeves, Evans and Novak Ralph Nader, Bella Abzug, and Phyllis Schlafly were on staff either full time or as free-lance contributors.
Already, Washington managing editor Watson and Mr. Simon have departed. But most of the original staffers remain faithful to the principle of 24-hour news service. Practically all of the Atlanta staff journalists I spoke with revealed an impressive pioneer spirit and brave-if-tentative optimism about the future.
Mr. Schonfeld seems to me as gung-ho as could be. The burden to day-to-day operations falls on his shoulders and, despite a constant worried look on his face, he appears to be firmly convinced that CNN will succeed in the long run, despite anticipated start-up troubles.
As far as this critic could see from several days of watching CNN as much as possible, the network is burdened with just about all of the major weaknesses of over-the-air commercial news: too much headline service in prime-time; constant commercial interruptions; overabundance of happy talk; technical foul-ups; too much dependence upon news services; over-long filler features; lack of solid local news.
But there are already positive signs of more than average competence and many pluses which most national TV news organizations probably yearn to possess: enough time to treat big stories solidly; willingness to interrupt scheduled programming for breaking news; capable anchors and talk show hosts like Sandi Freeman, Lee Leonard, Don Farmer and Chris Curle (a husband and wife team); an abundance of intelligent newscaster- readers; candor on air when there are technical foulwscaster- readers; candor on air when there are technical foul-ups; disarming honestly about news capability (newscasters don't hesitate to use the phone if a staffer is not on the spot); an overall sense of earnestness and seriousness about the news mixed with a refreshing sense of humor which keeps that inevitable inflated sense of self-importance to a minimum.
The writing seems no better or worse than any other news organization's.
All of this somehow becomes clearly perceptible through the 24 hours of programming. In short, the CNN public image is good and getting better -- certainly far superior to what most old-line observers ever expected, considering the dreadful, almost laughable, reputation for serious news which Ted Turner had earned previously on WTBS.
Seated at his desk in the midst of the playing-field sized studio-office complex in Turner's Tara, Mr. Schonfeld, a 25- year veteran of TV news who previously served as managing director of Independent Television News Association, whispers some pungently unorthodox comments so as not to disturb the workers at their desks an eavesdrop away. His eyes constantly scan the busy floor almost as efficiently as his electronic scanners in the back rooms maintain contact with satellite connections and news bureaus.
Says Mr. Schonfeld: "The people who invented television ripped off news. Traditionally, news has been supported by advertising, and entertainment has been supported by the consumer of entertainment has been supported by the consumer of entertainment. But somehow, with radio first and then television, executives found that they could give entertainment away with advertising. So they stole the traditional support of journalism and, in turn, made it support entertainment.
"I've always believed that was short-term, just because entertainment can make far more money. When broadcasters did this, I think they totally distorted all the natural processes both in news and entertainment. They now believe that only entertainment will reach their real market.c
According to Mr. Schonfeld CNN, supported mainly by advertising, will reverse the process. He sees all-news programming especially CNN, as a harbinger for over-the-air broadcasting as well as cable
cSoon there will be at least two all-news TV stations in every market -- certainly at least one which handle all local news, which is something we can't do. It may happen as quickly as 15 years from now."
Mr. Schonfeld believes we are being shortsighted about the satellite system for transmitting the news nationally and internationally.
"We put up cheap satellites in the sky with low-power 'transponders,' which means you have to have a large, expensive dish. If, instead, you concentrated your money on the satellite, spent a few billion instead of $80 or $90 million, you'd have an enormously powerful satellite which could be picked up with a coathanger hung outside your window."
Unspoken is the obvious response that the large corporations which control the satellites are not in the coathanger business.
Could CNN survive without satellites?
"No. That's the single essential item."
"Money alone would not be enough. We would spend probably 70 percent of our budget trying to hook up our systems on AT&T lines rather than the 10 percent we spend now."
Will CNN be able to compete with electronic newspapers and news data banks which will be available on two-way cable systems sooner or later?
"I don't consider that competition. I think that is part of the future of television and I welcome it If we succeed in what we are doing, we'll be like a general newspaper, while these other services will be more specialized, like trade papers, etc."
CNN Will not sell part of its news service to anybody. As far as Mr. Schonfeld is concerned, it's all or nothing. "It would thwart our whole method of distribution and we have to be loyal to our cable customers [cable systems pay CNN 15 or 20 cents per subscriber head].
"An awful lot of subscription TV stations have called us and asked if we would sell them our service and allow them to wraparound their pay services in prime time. We've refused. We will wait for the cable support. We could make a deal tomorrow that would give us twice as many homes as the 2.5 million we have today just by giving it to STV but we are saying no to that because Ted Turner conceived this for cable and that's where it is going to succeed.
"As a matter of fact, I think we are enormously successful now . . . except for the number of subscribers we have."
It remains to be seen how long Ted Turner will be willing -- or able -- to support this kind of "success" at the cost of $2 or $3 million per month, despite the fact that he has insisted he will go two or three years if necessary , waiting for enough advertising support.
Mr. Schonfeld fears for the future of news on cable, however. "I am afraid that in 30 or 40 years cable will be too valuable a medium for us to be allowed to use it. Two-way cable means a more closed-in society. At a certain point it's going to be more profitable for a cable-system owner to sell each of his 100 or more channels to companies who will use them for enormous profits. Sears Roebuck, for instance, would probably buy four channels and allow you to shop by catalog."
What would Reese Schonfeld, president of Cable News Network, consider a CNN success story at the end of its first year?
"There are three things we need to improve. First, the quality of our weekend programming.I was totally wrong in thinking that weekend news on cable would not be of interest because people don't listen as much to all-news weekend radio. But I've now decided that people don't listen to all-news radio on weekends because that's when they're wathcing TV. And that's when we are going to have our greatest audience. So that's where we have to be at our best.
"The second thing I want to do is improve the quality of our writing. It's a problem for all of television, but especially for us.
"And the third thing I'd like to do is increase the editorial staff by one-quarter, maybe even more. I find everyone, and myself included, thinking about today. We just need some people to think ahead.
"If, at the end of the first year -- that's June 1, 1981, -- we had 5 to 6 million subscribers instead of the 3 million we estimate we will have by Oct. 1, that would enable us to spend more money and do all of those things."
Suddenly Mr. Schonfeld seems to sense that the is, perpahps, being too critical of his own staff. He adds:
"Even considering the quality of what we do now, we give the viewers some things they could never get from any network. I'm dissatisfied with the quality , but then, I'm congenitally dissatisfied. I guess perfection will just have to wait a while.
"But one thing we do right now, consciously, although it didn't start our that way, is try do do America as if it were a local story. That's why our 'look' tends to be somewhere between the 'network look' and the 'local look.'
"We are not trying to be Olympicans like the three networks, peering down on this planet as if we don't live here. We don't want to be judgmental, and I don't think we are. But maybe that's just because we've got to get on the air so fast we don't have the time."
However, futurists as well as opposition news organizations are already judging Cable News Network. They are trying to decide if those 300 hardy pioneers will prove to be the vanguard of a new 24-hour news movement in all forms of telecommunications -- over-the-air, cable, pay TV.
Or if CNN will turn out to have been a premature harbinger of news to come.