Probably the two greatest threats to network news just now are the Cable News Network (CNN) and Conus Communications, services that offer stations and viewers sound television news alternatives. CNN, founded in 1980 by Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner, now telecasts news 24 hours a day to about 40 million households. When important news breaks, more and more viewers are turning to CNN, where the chances are there will be continuing coverage rather than intermittent news bulletins sandwiched between network soap operas and game shows.
A spinoff service, Headline News, claims to serve more than 25 million cable and broadcasts households with its constantly recycled top-of-the-news information 24 hours a day.
Mr. Turner, president of the Turner Broadcasting System, insists that CNN will turn over a $60 million profit this year, making it ``the only really profitable news organization in the world.'' Some industry insiders question the figure.
``We are doing things the networks can't possibly do,'' Turner says, citing ``World Report,'' a program that premi`ered Oct. 25. ``We've asked every country in the world to send us a review of the news every week, and we plan to run them strung together, unedited, eventually for six hours per Sunday.''
CNN vice-president Ed Turner (who is not related to Ted Turner) points out that CNN stays with a story as long as necessary. He predicts that the cutting edge of news in the future will involve on-the-scene reporters.
He says CNN is developing the capacity to fly them to the news scene with the newest high-tech equipment - a sort of portable TV station dubbed ``the flyaway.''
Actually it's a dish with 15 cases that fit in the belly of a small plane. ``You can fly it all to Des Moines, where you can have a rent-a-van waiting to drive you to the scene of an explosion, a crime, a convention,'' says Ed Turner. ``You can set up and go live in a matter of hours rather than days.''
The ``flyaway'' has been in constant use since last April, when CNN introduced it, Mr. Turner adds. ``We've already got them ordered for Germany and Japan, and we'll have them in all our domestic bureaus. The networks can't compete, because what they do is entertainment. And they're not about to blow out those expensive and popular entertainment programs for anything this side of war.''
Turner says rapid growth of the home satellite dishes in Europe, where cable is coming into use slowly, leads him to believe that the American viewing public will soon turn to ``direct broadcast satellite'' transmissions.
``There will be a point in the 1990s,'' explains Turner, ``when you can go to Radio Shack and, for $200, buy yourself a dandy home dish, put it up on your roof, buy a descrambler, and dial in those program services that used to be known as CBS, NBC, and ABC.''
News programming, of course, according to Turner, would come from CNN through your home computer.
Another non-network source of on-the-scene reports is Conus, whose vice-president, Stanley E. Hubbard II, believes cooperative news-gathering is the answer to declining interest in dinner-hour network news.
Conus, founded in 1984, is a cooperative of 67 independently owned stations, representing all three major networks and many non-affiliated stations. It uses the latest in satellite technology to provide news feeds compiled in part from reports of member stations, arranges satellite transponder time, and offers many live and taped specialized news feeds.
Mr. Hubbard says, ``The network newscasts are covering, in a major way, three or four stories now, whereas a few years ago there were maybe 18 stories in their newscasts. They're leaving a lot of the headline news to the local stations.
``We share our resources,'' he continues, ``to do better headline news for ourselves. Conus's only task is to provide the material that local stations want. We have no access to the airwaves. We just sell a service, and they put it on their own airwave.
``The real conflict coming is not between CNN and Conus and the networks,'' Hubbard contends. ``It's between the local stations. News is their bread and butter, and they are determined to do more for themselves and put their own editorial stamp on their news.''
As if the flight of advertising dollars to cable TV and other media and the defection of viewers to VCRs and cable channels weren't enough, responsible and committed network news people face another problem.
The deregulation of television has gradually freed TV news from many of its public-service requirements, opening the way for entertainment-oriented managers to push news and public affairs off the air.
A laissez faire-oriented Federal Communications Commission (FCC) no longer demands carefully balanced schedules as a requirement for license renewal. And the Reagan veto in August of a congressional bill that would have maintained the ``fairness doctrine'' has made television stations freer than ever before from a governmental mandate to provide viewers with news and controversial material.
Deregulation, however, affects local stations more than the networks, because these stations can now exercise more choice in airing entertainment programs rather than the news and public-affairs programming still being fed by the networks.
While many First Amendment advocates have long advocated an end to the fairness doctrine, so that government will no longer have what they see as undue control over any ``arm of the press,'' newscaster Dan Rather mourns its demise.
According to Mr. Rather, the CBS anchor, major differences in news programming will show up in the small-to-medium TV markets, where there are fewer stations available and where decisions are under less scrutiny.
``The fairness doctrine was part of an important system of checks and balances,'' Rather says. ``The people of the country who own the airwaves originally told the station owner that, in return for his license to operate on their airwaves, he had to agree to provide balanced coverage of major news events. Now that agreement is voided.''
Another advocate of press freedom who defends the fairness doctrine is journalism scholar Ben Bagdikian, dean of the University of California's Graduate School of Journalism.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications earlier this year Mr. Bagdikian charged that broadcasters wanted cancellation of both the fairness doctrine and the FCC provision that demanded equal time for people wanting to respond to a point of view presented in a telecast, so they could produce fewer public-affairs programs and make more money broadcasting entertainment shows.
Bagdikian said, ``By far the majority of dollars in the astronomical purchase prices [of TV stations] is for the broadcast license issued by the US government. Where else can you buy a piece of paper that gives you annual pre-tax profits of 40 percent, that gives you a monopoly on your channel protected by the full police powers of the government, and with almost no obligation to do anything in return?''
Fairness-doctrine supporters haven't given up, since the Reagan veto. NBC News president Lawrence Grossman notes, ``The pendulum swings back and forth. This has been a period of deregulation. Coming up on the horizon will be a period of reregulation, a whole new era where the public service and public interest will fly again. Congress will see to it.''
The current battle to reinstate the fairness doctrine through a congressional bill by Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D) of South Carolina is proof of that.
Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic. Tomorrow: The Golden Age - is it ending or beginning?