CNN At 20: From Chicken Noodle Network To Global Media Power

June 1: It was almost 20 years ago today, and it was as hot as Hotlanta gets when I showed up for my interview at the headquarters of the just-launched Cable News Network next door to the home of Rambling Wrecks of Georgia Tech. There were three flags out front, one from the Republic for which it stands, another from the Peach State complete with Confederate symbols -- since removed -- and the other from the United Nations, signaling the company's international aspirations.

The receptionist was operating like a traffic cop, referring a procession of job applicants to the basement. The building had been remade into the hub of an emerging communications empire so the South could rise again, under the visionary if flamboyant leadership of Ted Turner, the soon to be globally amplified "Mouth from the South." (A few years later, CNN moved to its current home at what some staffers call the "news bunker" in the Omni Hotel complex.

I was living in Boston then, just down for the day to look into a producing opportunity. What I couldn't have guessed was that I would be thrown into putting a primetime news interview show on the air that very night, with little direction and almost no oversight. I had no idea either that I would stay on as a producer for the rest of 1980, often trapped in a basement that had been turned into an electronic Disneyland outfitted with the latest techno-gizmos and an adjacent satellite farm. I had entered the world of the news factory, and, briefly, it entered me.

When CNN went on air (or, actually, on cable) two decades ago, it was an audacious enterprise, scoffed at by the Big Broadcast Boys in New York as the Chicken Noodle Network. For years, the big three networks had gotten by with a half-hour news show a night, and now here was Turner, hyping a news channel. Some of my colleagues in Atlanta saw themselves as "news guerillas," pioneers in a news revolution. Actually, what was happening was simply a transmigration onto TV of the tried-and-true all-news radio format, with its rigorously formatted schedules or news-wheel. Thanks to news veteran Reese Schoenfeld, who sold the idea of "all the news all the time" television to Turner (without getting as much credit or stake as he should), CNN went live that June 1 with a clear plan of how to generate enough programming to fill the time. Schoenfeld became CNN's first president, winning internal recognition, while Ted basked in media glory, startling his staid news execs with this public prediction: "We're gonna go on the air June 1, and we're gonna stay on until the end of the world. When that time comes, we'll cover it, play 'Nearer My God to Thee' and sign off."

CNN was and is primarily about building a business for itself and the cable world, not offering a public service. It supplied the fledging cable business with a marketable product available only to subscribers. Remember, cable started as a way to improve reception, as community antenna systems. To expand and bring in paying customers, the industry needed unique channels and shows. The industry hyped CNN to convince Americans that it was time to pay for the TV that had always been "free" (i.e., advertiser driven and supported). Cable aspired to become a utility on a par with electricity and gas, as indispensable to the home as the TV set itself. So cable became the only place to watch CNN, and CNN in turn helped sell basic cable. Years later cable operators led by TCI's John Malone would buy into the network in a big way, making Turner as rich as he made them.

Now, 20 years later, CNN sees itself as a global "brand." People around the world think of it as America's number one network for news, not always aware of the existence of lookalike ABCNBCBS. CNN went from a fledgling operation to a multi-channel news machine, available in airports, hotel rooms and now on cell phones. As CNN started to go global, people all over the world began to think of CNN as the real Voice of America. CNN correspondent Wolf Blitzeronce revealed that the Pentagon had leaked a story to him rather than hold a press conference, because they knew that when people saw him standing in a suit and tie in front of an American flag they assumed he was a spokesman for government policy.

"We are not naive. We do know that people seek to use us as a player," admits Chris Cramer, president of CNN International in a June 1 interview with Agence France-Press (AFP), but "we don't have an agenda -- we are not exporting an American viewpoint." But onetime TV news exec David Klattel of the Columbia School of Journalism in New York told AFP he believes CNN does broadcast a US perspective. "It has made the world of politics and media much more American because of the dominant impact of American television and the American economy," Klattel says, noting particularly the evolving style of the news media in many less powerful countries. "When there is a scandal or a war, even smaller countries try to approach it the way the Americans do," he says.

What may have been innovative and adventurous long ago soon lost any upstart edge and sense of mission. CNN today is slickly and professionally produced, by network veterans groomed in corporate news cultures. It is designed to be homogenous, a seemless flow of predictable formats and personalities like Larry King. Its rough edges have been smoothed as CNN added the programming common on the bigger networks. When ABC newsmagazine producer Rick Kaplan joined CNN, there was soon a primetime newsmagazine to ape NBC's Dateline and ABC's Prime Time Live. Newsstand "got off to a bumpy start when the network rushed an investigation onto the air that it later retracted amidst the continuing Operation Tailwind" controversy.

This may have been more evidence of Ted Turner's own forecast as quoted in John Pilger's must-read book Hidden Agendas: "We are a lot like the modern chicken farmer. They grind up the feet to make fertilizer. They grind up the intestines to make dog food. The feathers go into the pillows. Even the chicken manure is made into fertilizer. They use every bit of the chicken. Well, that's what we try to do with the television product."

Now, at age 20, CNN's product is entering an era of uncertainty. First on the corporate level: What will Time Warner's fusion with AOL mean? CNN has been acquired by Time Warner, and there are reports that Turner is pissed that former MTV boss Bob Pittman, who went from Time Warner to AOL years earlier, will now will be running the merged über-company's cable operations, and may want to wreck the deal. Then Turner, true to his manic ways, went from mouthing off against his own company to embracing it a week later. "Happy -- I'm happy! ... You can be unhappy one week and happy another one, right?‚" he told the New York Times.

The ascendance of the showman Pittman may signal an acceleration of the blending of show biz and news biz. Already, as AFP notes, "the channel's efforts to create an entertaining Image are apparent, including dramatic music and eye-catching graphics sequences employed in introducing its segments on dominant, ongoing news stories. For years the network featured the low rumbling voice of U.S. actor James Earl Jones -- the voice of Darth Vader in the movie Star Wars -- saying with a weighty pause after the first word: "This ... is CNN.‚" (Jones called CNN "the world's most important network" while staffers joked it was the world's most self-important one.) More recently, CNN promos feature celebrities and political figures saying: "I'm watching you, CNN."

With the merger, there are the technological uncertainties. What will "convergence" -- the coming together of TV and the Internet -- mean for a cable network in a post-cable world? CNN is heavily invested in cable, obviously, but even the manager of CNN's impressive website told me he doesn't know whether his operation will be absorbed by AOL. With its 22 million subscribers AOL could be an asset to CNN, but none of this is clear, as the Times story pointed out. "The new company will have a new management structure and, possibly, new ideas about how to do things, especially when ratings are low."

And that is CNN's final problem. Rating are low, the lowest monthly ratings in nine years according to press reports. This is partly because the audience for news is being fragmented by new competitors and partly because CNN ratings soar during crises. As the American Journalism Review writes this month, "CNN finds itself looking over its shoulder as it celebrates its 20th birthday. The network of record is in a bit of a slump, and rivals MSNBC and Fox News are waging vigorous challenges with fresh approaches to cable news." There are also local and regional CNN-like 24 hour cable channels such as New York 1 fighting for eyeballs domestically. Other competitors include CNBC, Bloomberg, Overseas BBC World Service and Deutcher Welle.

Until now CNN has ruled the cable news roosts but the upstarts are making a dent, as are news websites. "CNN has nowhere to go but down" says a very self-interested John Moody, an executive at Fox News.

Within the last three years CNN has strengthened its reporting considerably, adding special reports, documentaries, investigative features and significant environmental reporting with more coverage of the world than the other American networks combined. Turner once revealed what he thinks he has to do to interest viewers: "I am one of those do-gooders and I am going to keep on doing. If the people don't watch the UN [coverage] this year, I am going to keep on running it. I am going to do the right thing. That's right. Shove it down their throats. I am going to keep on running it ..."

But for all Turner's bluster and billionaire indulgences that keep the tabloids buzzing, CNN is increasingly mainstream -- offering cookiecutter news driven by the agendas of the powerful. The news world today, with its lingo and frames of reference, is a world of its own. "It hasn't done much to improve the way we get our news," Tom Rosensteil, now of the Committee of Concerned Journalists wrote in the New Republic a couple of years back. "In certain ways, the network has even had a pernicious effect on the rest of journalism; it has accelerated the loss of control news organizations have over content, which in turn has bred a rush to sensationalism and an emphasis on punditry and interpretation at the expense of old-fashioned reporting ... The constant clatter of its twenty-four-hour programming is more flattening than deepening."

Perhaps that is one reason why much of TV news reporting itself is often more distancing than involving. The classic journalist -- someone with ideas, values and interpretative skills -- has been replaced by the "post journalist" packager who imposes a standardized format on news programming. David Altheide and Robert Snow call this "information mechanics" in their book Media Worlds in the Post Journalism Era. "We are post journalism and very much in the age of media talent, performers and actors," they write. "With some exceptions it is no longer the individual creative work of journalists that gives us news of the world, but rather standard templates, routines and typical courses of action. No wonder so much news looks the same, no matter where it comes from."

CNN is CNN, instantly recognizable and often instantly forgettable. Its sameness can deaden as often as enlighten. CNN's "revolution" turned out to be fusing the most innovative technology with the most conventional programming. Ted Turner was not always known as a news lover. Back in 1976, four years before the advent of CNN, he once actually replaced a news anchor on the local TV station he owned with a dog, a German shepherd. "I hate the news," he said back then. "News is evil."

Now he and his team promise to keep us informed until the world ends. I am watching you, CNN.

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of the MediaChannel and author of "The More You Watch The Less You Know (Seven Stories Press) His new book "News Dissector" is available through Electronpress.com.

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