"What If CNN Hadn't Happened?"
Published in the Detroit Free Press, June 12, 2005
Cable television got its start in the United States in the late 1940s, when enterprising citizens began experimenting with alternative ways to transmit television signals so that TV broadcasts would reach small towns and rural areas. The early cable TV systems simply retransmitted existing broadcast network signals to communities that could not receive them over the airwaves. Unlike the extensive services cable TV companies provide in the 2000s, these systems offered just a few channels and did not create their own original programming.
Despite their limitations, however, cable television systems spread across the rural United States during the 1950s and 1960s. The growth of cable TV alarmed the "Big Three" broadcast television networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—which had enjoyed a virtual lock on American TV audiences from the time television technology was first introduced. The networks argued that cable TV systems stole their programming by intercepting their over-the-air signals and then charging subscribers a fee for retransmitting them. The Big Three urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating television—to impose restrictions on cable operators.
"There's value in being informed. But given the choice between not knowing something or claiming you know it because you saw a 20-second story on it, well, which is more dangerous?"
Beginning in 1965, the FCC introduced a number of regulations designed to protect the interests of the broadcast networks by limiting the growth of cable TV. For instance, the FCC prohibited cable systems from entering urban markets, where they would compete directly with the broadcast networks. The rules also prevented cable systems from providing current programming, including movies that were less than ten years old or sporting events that had occurred within the past five years.
This situation began to change during the 1970s, when various community groups and educational institutions began complaining about the limitations the government had placed on cable TV. They argued that cable had the potential to bring new social, educational, and entertainment services to the American people. They claimed that the FCC regulations, in protecting the interests of the powerful broadcast networks, actually harmed the public interest by preventing cable from reaching its potential.
The FCC responded to public pressure and slowly began loosening its restrictions on cable TV. In 1972, the information company Time Inc. took advantage of the changing rules to launch a regional cable network called Home Box Office (HBO). HBO started out offering movies and special-event programming to markets on the East Coast of the United States on a pay-per-view basis. In 1975, HBO began distributing its signal nationwide using communications satellites orbiting Earth.
Around this time, HBO filed a lawsuit against the FCC in order to force the agency to give cable operators greater access to current programming. In 1977, the judge in the case ruled that the FCC was not justified in restricting cable TV in order to protect the broadcast networks. Following this initial ruling, a whole series of judicial decisions overturned other FCC restrictions on cable TV. Cable operators gained the right to air current movies and sporting events, for instance, and to offer services in the nation's top television markets.
Mitch Albom was born on May 23, 1958, in Trenton, New Jersey. He earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Brandeis University and master's degrees in journalism and business administration from Columbia University. Before becoming a journalist, he fought in amateur boxing matches and worked as a singer and piano player in nightclubs. Albom eventually became a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. As of 2005, he had won more than 100 awards for his writing and been named the top sports columnist in the nation for ten consecutive years.
Albom has also served as the host of two radio talk shows in the Detroit area and appeared on television as a panelist on ESPN's Sports Reporters series. He is the author of eight books, including the national bestsellers Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. In his spare time, he writes songs and does charity work.
Ted Turner revolutionizes cable TV
Ted Turner (1938–; see Chapter 12) was a pioneer in forming national cable TV networks and offering innovative cable programming. Turner was born on November 19, 1938, in Cincinnati, Ohio. He started his career by working in his father's billboard advertising business. After purchasing several radio stations in the late 1960s, Turner bought his first television station—WTCG in Atlanta—in 1970. Turner disliked Big Three network programming and thought that independent stations could make TV more interesting. He decided to offer old movies, cartoons, and sporting events as counter-programming to the network offerings.
In 1976, Turner turned his independent station into a national cable network. Like HBO had done the year before, Turner arranged to deliver his signal to cable systems across the country via satellite. He changed his call letters to WTBS (for Turner Broadcasting System) and referred to it as a "Superstation." He soon convinced national advertisers to begin placing their commercials on his cable network.
On June 1, 1980, Turner launched a new cable channel called the Cable News Network (CNN). CNN became the first network to provide TV viewers with news and information twenty-four hours per day. Turner said that he wanted to provide the American people with a source of news that was independent of the powerful broadcast networks. When CNN came on the air, the broadcast networks criticized its low-budget production methods and called it the "Chicken Noodle Network." At first it appeared that CNN would be a short-lived experiment, as the network lost $20 million in its first year. But Turner's all-news format gradually attracted viewers and became profitable.
CNN covers breaking news events
Within a few years of its creation, CNN became famous for its coverage of breaking news events. In 1986, for instance, CNN was the only TV channel to provide live coverage of the launch of the space shuttle Challenger. After the first American astronaut walked on the Moon in 1969, the broadcast networks had stopped paying much attention to the U.S. space program. So when Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board, CNN was the first to report it. The broadcast networks rushed their top anchors into the studios and interrupted regular programming to provide coverage of the accident. Nevertheless, the incident helped make CNN the first choice for many TV viewers when important news broke.
CNN really moved to the forefront of TV news coverage during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. This conflict began when the Middle Eastern nation of Iraq invaded its smaller neighbor, Kuwait. When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein (1937–) refused international requests to remove his troops from Kuwait, the United States and a coalition of other countries sent military forces to the Persian Gulf region. The coalition spent several weeks bombing strategic targets in Iraq, then launched a ground attack that forced the Iraqi troops to leave Kuwait.
On the night the coalition bombing raids began, CNN had three anchors stationed in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. These men—Peter Arnett (1934–), Bernard Shaw (1940–), and John Holliman (1948–1998)—covered the attacks live from the balcony of their downtown hotel room. Their daring footage attracted 11 million viewers—or about 20 times the normal ratings for CNN. When Saddam Hussein ordered all foreign journalists to leave Iraq, Arnett was the only one allowed to remain. He continued reporting for CNN from within Iraq throughout the war. CNN's coverage of the Persian Gulf War, which was broadcast via satellite, helped the cable network become a prime news source for TV viewers around the world. Within five years, CNN was more profitable than the three major networks' news divisions combined.
CNN's impact on TV news
CNN launched a revolution in up-to-the-minute television news coverage. By the 1990s, CNN's success had led to the creation of numerous competing cable news channels. Microsoft and NBC teamed up to form MSNBC, for instance, while the Fox broadcast network launched the Fox News Channel. These cable news channels tried a variety of approaches to draw viewers' attention away from CNN and local and network news programming. For example, they introduced news programs with loud, brash, opinionated hosts who seemed to enjoy challenging and arguing with their guests. CNN remained at the forefront of breaking news events, though, and it was the first network to cover the terrorist attacks on New York City on September 11, 2001.
CNN has helped make news more plentiful and up to date than ever, and many TV viewers enjoy having access to news and information twenty-four hours per day. At the same time, though, many critics claim that CNN's success has led to an overall decline in the quality of information that TV news provides to the American people. In order to attract and hold viewers' attention, TV news tends to focus on stories that can be presented in short segments and feature a dramatic visual element—like natural disasters and violent crime. Critics argue that this focus often prevents TV news from covering stories that may be more complex and less exciting, but also hold greater importance to society. They also complain that intense competition has forced TV news to become more like tabloid magazines, full of celebrity gossip and sex scandals.
CNN celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary on June 1, 2005. Detroit Free Press columnist, radio host, television commentator, and best-selling author Mitch Albom chose this occasion to share his thoughts about CNN's impact on American society. In his article "What If CNN Hadn't Happened," which is reprinted below, Albom argues that the tremendous influence of CNN around the world is not necessarily a good thing. He claims that twenty-four-hour news overwhelms people with input that makes them feel informed, but does not actually increase their level of knowledge. Albom concludes that people need to venture into the world and have real experiences in order to be truly informed.
Things to remember while reading "What If CNN Hadn't Happened?":
- In his column, Albom mentions a number of stories that received widespread television coverage in the 1990s and 2000s, including the murder trial of actor Robert Blake, the broken engagement of celebrities Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and the disappearance of political intern Chandra Levy in Washington D.C. He points out that CNN and other TV news outlets gave these stories nearly nonstop attention for months, despite the fact that they had questionable news value.
- Albom also makes reference to political divisions in the United States, using terms like "red state vs. blue state" and "liberal vs. conservative." In his view, debate-oriented cable news programs like CNN's Crossfire, MSNBC's Hardball, and Fox News' Hannity and Colmes have contributed to forging and deepening these political divisions.
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
[Text Not Available]
What happened next …
Since it originated the twenty-four-hour news format in 1980, CNN has faced ever-increasing competition from other cable news outlets. In the early 2000s, the Fox News Channel began to challenge CNN for the top position. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many critics claimed that Fox News became openly biased in its presentation of the news. For instance, the network placed an American flag logo on the screen, and Fox News anchors often expressed outright support for President Bush and his war on terrorism. Some American viewers found Fox's conservative slant on the news to be reassuring. As a result, Fox News enjoyed a 43 percent increase in viewers over the next few months. By 2003, Fox News led CNN in the ratings by a margin of 2-1.
The success of Fox News has encouraged other cable news channels to cater to the views of a specific audience with more opinionated, and less objective, news coverage. This trend toward biased TV news reporting could further complicate some of the issues Albom mentions in his column. For instance, some critics claim that it has increased the political divisions in the United States and made it more difficult to resolve important problems in American society.
Did you know …
- Thanks to CNN, cable became Americans' top choice for information about breaking news events. By the time of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, surveys showed that 45 percent of viewers went to cable news first for the latest information, while 22 percent turned to the Big Three broadcast networks and 20 percent to local newscasts.
- CNN is such a respected source of up-to-the-minute information about breaking news events that world leaders have reportedly tuned in to get details about election results, political protests, natural disasters, and other situations taking place in their own countries. Some analysts claim that CNN's coverage of international news events has also influenced the U.S. government's foreign policy decisions. For instance, after CNN provided extensive coverage of a 1993 battle on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, that left eighteen American soldiers dead and eighty-four wounded, President Bill Clinton quickly withdrew U.S. troops from the country. Analysts even coined a new term, "The CNN Effect," to describe instances where the possibility of instantaneous news coverage influenced government decisions.
Consider the following …
- In his article, Albom challenges readers to imagine a world without access to twenty-four-hour news coverage. He then asks, "Would our lives really be lessened?" How would you answer this question?
- Albom also argues that developing a true understanding of the world requires "travel, face-to-face contact, smelling strange foods, walking in strange sand." Think about someplace you traveled where you did things that were outside your ordinary experience. What did you learn? Do you think you could have learned the same things by watching a news story on television?
- Today, more and more people rely on the Internet for information about news events. What are the advantages and disadvantages of online news sources, as compared to television news? Do you think the Internet will ever replace TV as Americans' first choice for news and information?
For More Information
Auletta, Ken. Media Man: Ted Turner's Improbable Empire. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.
Bliss, Edward J., Jr. Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
Collins, Scott. Cray Like a Fox: The Inside Story of How Fox News Beat CNN. New York: Portfolio, 2004.
Whittemore, Hank. CNN: The Inside Story. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990.
Albom, Mitch. "What If CNN Hadn't Happened?" Detroit Free Press, June 12, 2005.
"Cable Television's Long March." The Economist, November 16, 1996.
Foote, Joe S. "Television News: Past, Present, and Future." Mass Communications Review, Winter-Spring 1992.
Frank, Reuven. "The Shifting Shapes of TV News." New Leader, March 2001.
Small, William. "Television Journalism." Television Quarterly (special issue), Winter 1990.
Kierstead, Phillip. "Network News." Museum of Broadcast Communications. http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/N/htmlN/newsnetwork/newsnetwork.htm (accessed on July 31, 2006).
"Mitch Albom Bio." Albom.com. http://www.albom.com/about_mitch.htm (accessed on July 31, 2006).