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.
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.
Since then, the network has logged an impressive array of scoops and milestones: live telecast of Senate hearings; coverage of the assassination attempts on President Reagan and the Pope; England's Royal Wedding; the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
CNN won Overseas Press Club and Peabody Awards for its 1983 coverage of the downing of Korean Airlines 007 jetliner, the bombing of US Marine headquarters in Beirut, and the US invasion of Grenada.
CNN was the only network covering the Challenger liftoff when the spacecraft exploded.
``CNN has revised our expectations about information from television,'' says Conrad Kottak, author of an anthropological analysis of television and culture. ``We now wish to join programming at any point, rather than sticking to a schedule as we used to.''
Besides providing viewers an alternative news source, CNN also sells foreign news footage to local stations, depriving the networks of their role as primary source, of income, and to a certain extent, identity.
``We've had to scramble to improve our own syndication services,'' says Bob McFarland, deputy director of the ``NBC Nightly News.''
Says Don Conley, jouralist-in-residence at George Mason University: ``They've got the network anchors responding with a crazy dance, which bears no relation to content and is becoming total glitter.''
On some events, however, ``the networks are more and more conceding CNN exclusive coverage,'' notes Bernard Shaw, on-air anchor of ``The World Tonite'' [see interview at left]. He recalls the '84 and '88 political conventions, where the networks severely curtailed their traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage.
CNN now has 1,700 employees, 23 bureaus, and 1989 operating profits of $134 million. There are affiliates, and a news service known as Newsource, which offers independents generic reports without the CNN logo.
``Larry King Live'' and ``CNN Sports Tonight'' are among CNN's top-rated regular programming. ``World Report,'' which telecasts unedited reports from 120 foreign broadcasters, has won accolades. A business news show, ``Moneyline'' has a loyal viewship.
CNN has ``shown you don't have to have a celebrity, blow-dry anchor and a bunch of silly small talk to get people interested in the news,'' notes Berkeley's Bagdikian.
Yet despite CNN's many strengths and innovations, some weaknesses remain.
``The networks have something that CNN doesn't - a range of seasoned, experienced correspondents,'' claims CBS's Stringer.
``There's a big difference between reportage and coverage,'' comments a former network news executive who asked not to be identified. ``True, CNN is mastering the technology of pointing a camera at key events, but their ability to report the significance of those events has a long way to go.''
And though CNN may not rely on the star system - high-profile news anchors and personalities - some observers say that's because the cable network's high volume demand and low pay do not engender quality or loyalty.
``A lot of those we hire have spent their formative years getting experience at CNN,'' says Mr. McFarland, deputy editor of the ``NBC Nightly News.'' ``We like to think they're more seasoned and better reporters by then. They should be; we pay them more.''
CNN has reached a ratings plateau, not often rising beyond .7. To increase viewership, the network launched both ``The World Today,'' opposite the networks' evening news, and ``Special Assignment,'' an investigative series. So far neither has produced dramatic results, according to Ed Turner, CNN's executive vice-president for news gathering. ``It will take two years at least to develop a loyal audience for `The World Today,''' he predicts.
``For 35 years, it's been the Big 3 battling things out,'' says Texas A&M's Professor Tomlinson. ``CNN came along and set a fire under them and gave us in a period of relative complacency and in the process given us a viable fourth - and that's good for everyone.''