views updated


CNN (Cable News Network) was rated "the most believable" of television news sources in a 1990 Times Mirror poll. By the end of the twentieth century it had established itself as the leading news-gathering organization, not only in the United States, but in the world. Although in its early days CNN was a little-respected, self-described "rough around the edges" long-shot, by the 1990s other television news departments feared its domination so much that NBC and Fox decided to compete directly, on cable. Early CNN critics doubted that television could host a 24 hour news channel, but executives soon agreed that there was enough of a market for a number of them. By the end of the twentieth century, CNN's growth into a family of networks—CNN Headline News, CNN International, CNN en Espanõl, CNNfn (financial news), CNN-SI (sports), CNN Airport Network, CNN Radio, and CNN Interactive (Internet)—has positioned it as the first in a now long line of network news shows which feed America's hunger for critical analysis of daily events.

When Peter Arnett appeared live on CNN from Bagdad while the city was under attack by American bombers, the network's reputation as the source of first resort for major international news was cemented. Founder Ted Turner had called it "the world's most important network" from the beginning, but now many others commented on the "CNN effect"; how all participants in the war monitored the network for primary information and often seemed to design military movements and press briefings with particular concern for how they would appear on CNN. World leaders now routinely mention the Cable News Network and its programming. Its influence is such that it is referred to as "the sixteenth member of the U.N. Security Council." At the end of 1980, after half a year of broadcasting, CNN reached 4.3 million subscribers; by 1998 it claimed 184 million households worldwide.

Ted Turner's 1979 announcement about forming a 24 hour cable news network elicited scoffs and scorn from the mainstream media. The idea that such an enterprise could be profitable, let alone become a dominant world-wide news source, seemed ridiculous. Several major news organizations had looked into forming just such a service, but had determined that it would be far too expensive. The three networks each spent over one hundred million dollars a year on their news divisions, the result of which was the material for a half-hour broadcast each evening. Turner proposed running 24-hour-a-day programming on a budget of less than half that amount.

The America's cup, WTCG, and the Braves had already made Ted Turner well-known. He had won the Cup in 1977 and was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. After inheriting a modest billboard business in 1963, Turner built a media company by buying struggling UHF stations in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina. He surprised the established media in 1972 when his channel 17, WTCG (later WTBS), beat out WSB, the largest television station in the south, for the rights to broadcast Atlanta Braves baseball games. In 1976 Turner bought the Braves, the Hawks of the NBA (National Basketball Association), and the Chiefs of professional soccer, largely to assure that they would remain in Atlanta where he could continue to broadcast their games. WTCG's signal was made available via satellite in December 1976. During the 1970s, cable television was still in its infancy—Home Box Office, one of the first cable channels, was launched in 1975—with only about 14 percent of American households subscribed to cable.

Turner recruited a team of committed news people and for the most part left the planning of the new network to them. They were excited by his vision of a channel dedicated entirely to reporting the news and decided that the emphasis should be on live coverage. Operating out of a former country club, CNN went on the air on June 1, 1980. It started out with a staff of 300 and seven bureaus: Atlanta, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, London, and Rome. Disparagingly referred to as the "Chicken Noodle Network," the disparity between its budget and those of the broadcast network news programs sometimes showed in production quality in its first few years. Gaffes and mixed signals seemed endemic at times. More often, CNN claimed, the "raggedness" was unavoidable with uncompromising, unfiltered breaking news coverage to which the network was dedicated. Ignoring the naysayers, producers pushed for close monitoring of potentially developing situations so that when something happened, they could cut to it immediately. Producer Ted Kavanau became known for calling out, "take it!" when he wanted a switch made at once.

It was not until 1985, as it worked to increase viewership and fend off rivals, that Cable News Network was profitable. In 1981, Westinghouse, which owned major cable-provider Group W, announced a partnership with ABC News to take on CNN; they named the venture SNC (Satellite News Channel). In direct response, CNN launched Headline News on December 31, 1981, almost six months before SNC was introduced on June 21, 1982. Still, the direct competition proved to be the greatest challenge to CNN's survival. Ted Turner spent millions of dollars competing with SNC, and finally defeated the network by buying it for 25 million dollars. It ceased programming on October 27, 1983.

For the 1980 major-party political conventions, CNN did not even have floor credentials, but by the 1992 conventions the traditional broadcast networks cited CNN's in-depth, gavel-to-gavel coverage as a primary reason for their limited coverage. Originally CNN had to fight for equal access to the White House, but by October 1987 the White House invited anchors from "all four networks" for a "chat." Respect was acquired gradually. CNN gave the first American report of the Pope's shooting in May 1981 and extensive coverage to the Falkland War in April 1982. The network was providing the only live coverage of the Space Shuttle Challenger launch on January 28, 1986, when it tragically exploded 96 seconds after take-off.

Despite great logistical problems and restrictions by governments, 1989 provided CNN with many riveting images: the Tiananmen Square massacre in May, the failed Russian coup in August (with Boris Yeltsin rallying the throngs from atop a tank), the November fall of the Berlin Wall, and the invasion of Panama in December. These milestones bolstered the network's reputation little by little, but it was the Gulf War that elevated CNN's status to that of undisputed authority for major, breaking news. President George Bush told diplomats, "I learn more from CNN than I do from the CIA."

Time-Warner bought CNN from Ted Turner in 1996 for three billion dollars. Turner also stayed on as an executive vice president. CNN's credibility, however, was damaged in 1998 after an investigative report on the new program Newsstand, alleging that American forces used nerve gas in Laos in 1970. Attacks on the credibility of the story led the network to retract the story and fire the producers of the piece.

Despite CNN's undeniable influence, all of the networks again considered starting their own cable news channels in the early 1990s; NBC and Fox went ahead with theirs. Rupert Murdoch, media magnate owner of Fox, said that he wanted to counter what he called CNN's "liberal bias." Ted Turner cast CNN as an agent of global understanding and peace. From the dedicatory ceremony in front of the original CNN headquarters, where a United Nations flag flew alongside those of the United States and the State of Georgia, he has insisted that CNN is a world network, not American. The word "international" is preferred to "foreign," correspondents from all over the world are employed, and CNN's tolerant reporting on many totalitarian governments has provoked withering attacks from some American conservatives. Turner also saw the network as a key element in the "Third Wave" of futurist Alvin Toffler. Toffler predicts that the information age will lead to a global age. Marshal McLuhan also influenced Turner; writer Joshua Hammer writes, "If Marshal McLuhan's global village exists, its capital is the CNN headquarters in Atlanta." CNN International was launched in 1985 and in 1987 CNN introduced a new show called World Report, a two hour program featuring unedited three minute segments from local television journalists world-wide.

CNN claims to be different from older network television news because it is an all-news network and it is on cable. Its cable home means that CNN receives approximately half of its income from fees, making it is less dependent on ratings than free broadcast channels are. Therefore, CNN officials argue, the network can cover news more objectively, with less concern for what may titillate viewers. Its news-only format means that it feels no influence from larger entertainment division. In the 1990s CNN was watched by an average half million households in prime time, while the big three broadcast evening news programs were seen by around 25 million viewers. CNN executives routinely refer to the large broadcast networks as "the entertainment networks." Largely due to its commitment to world-wide, unfiltered coverage, as Time magazine wrote on January 6, 1992, "It has become the common frame of reference for the world's power elite." A 1992 poll found CNN the fourth most respected brand name in the United States, surpassed only by Mercedes-Benz, Kodak, and Disney. Despite its relatively low ratings (except during moments of crisis), CNN can legitimately call itself the world's premier television news service, essentially the network of record, equivalent to the New York Times in print journalism.

—Paul Gaffney

Further Reading:

Diamond, Edwin. The Media Show: The Changing Face of the News, 1985-1990. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1991.

Flournoy, Don M., and Robert K. Stewart. CNN: Making News in the Global Market. Luton, United Kingdom, University of Luton Press, 1997.

Kerbel, Matthew Robert. Edited for Television: CNN, ABC, and American Presidential Elections. 2nd edition. Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1998.

Whittemore, Hank. CNN: The Inside Story. Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1990.