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Cable Giant CNN Turns 30 Amid Challenges From Changing Media Landscape

June 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As innovator CNN marks 30 years on the air, Jeffrey Brown takes a look at the development of cable news and the future of the media with a reporter who covers television and a former CNN manager.
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JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: a birthday for a television news pioneer amid a new era of change.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

DAVID WALKER, CNN: Good evening. I’m David Walker.

LOIS HART, CNN: And I’m Lois Hart. Now here’s the news.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ted Turner was characteristically bold and brash when he launched the cable news network 30 years ago and predicted it would become — quote — “the greatest achievement in the history of journalism.”

TED TURNER, Founder of CNN: To provide information to people when it wasn’t available before, to offer those who wanted a choice, I dedicate the news channel for America, the Cable News Network.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea was simple, but revolutionary: a 24-hour news channel, a mix of live coverage of breaking stories and analysis and debate programs, that would reach around the globe and compete for the three main networks.

ANNOUNCER: This is the “CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite.”

BERNARD SHAW, CNN: Good evening. President Carter says the House…

JEFFREY BROWN: CNN struggled to gain credibility as a serious news source at first, but its ability to jump on and stick with big stories helped make its mark.

One was the 1986 Challenger disaster.

TOM MINTIER, CNN: This morning, it looked as though they were not going to be able to get off.

JEFFREY BROWN: A year later, round-the-clock coverage of a toddler who fell into a well in Texas turned “Baby Jessica” into a national drama.

TONY CLARK, CNN: You could hear the applause as…

JEFFREY BROWN: And, in 1991, CNN reporters continued to broadcast live from Baghdad as bombs fell during the first Gulf War.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN: One U.S. military officer said, “This is a test of wills.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The on-the-ground-first-and-longest approach has continued to define CNN through the years, but, now at 30, it finds itself struggling anew, under the hugely changed cable news world that’s moved away from nonpartisan reporting and toward sharp opinion, dominated by major personalities at rivals FOX News and MSNBC that have overtaken CNN in the ratings, especially in some of the lucrative prime-time hours.

That’s turned the network’s birthday into a moment of big questions about its future programming and how to best define itself going forward.

And to some perspective then and now. Matea Gold covers the television industry for The Los Angeles Times. Bob Furnad was in top management at CNN for 18 years, including stints as head of political coverage and executive vice president. He retired in 2001 as president of CNN’s Headline News, and now teaches broadcast journalism at the University of Georgia.

Bob Furnad, start — start by taking us back in time. You came in early on. What were you all trying to do? And did anyone have a clue as to how to do it or what might come of it?

BOB FURNAD, Former CNN Executive: Oh, we were trying to stay on the air for 24 hours. And I don’t think anybody had quite figured out how to do that.

We brought a lot of commentators in, folks who could supposedly put things into perspective, but actually were there to help us fill time, and when we didn’t have material to fill time. We were obviously more free to go live with events, because we didn’t have much — many commercials to lose.

So, it was a — it was a — it was a learning time. It was a learning time for everybody. We were staffed primarily by young, inexperienced people that were running the cameras poorly, that were editing the tapes sometimes poorly. So, it was a challenge to get on and stay on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you see as the key to building that audience and then building the brand eventually? When did you know you — when did you know it was working?

BOB FURNAD: Well, I think we — we knew the effect of our presence in 1987. As your setup piece mentioned, when Jessica, the little baby Jessica was in the well in Texas, it was during prime time. It was during the evening hours.

The broadcast networks went quickly with a bulletin to say the story was going on. And then they went back to their normal programming. And people switched to CNN. And we saw a gigantic climb in our ratings. People saw us, saw us stay with the story, and then learned that, when there was a big story, CNN was going to stay when the broadcast nets would leave and go back to programming.

That was the big turning point for us. And, of course, the major turning point was the — was the Gulf War I, when we had a presence with three reporters, the boys in Baghdad, a presence in Baghdad, and the other networks did not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Matea Gold, CNN helped — CNN helped create cable news. It helped define the kinds of stories that Bob was just talking about.

But now it’s a quite different world, isn’t it? What do you — what do you — how do you define the big change that we’re in right now?

MATEA GOLD, The Los Angeles Times: Yes.

Well, in so many ways, CNN invented the concept of 24-hour news. And that’s been aped and imitated all over the world. And now it’s something that permeates, I think, our daily existence. And you no longer need to turn to CNN to get that.

And we’re really — the network is really reaching its 30th birthday at sort of an awkward time. It’s seen a big falloff in its ratings since the heights of the 2008 election. And that’s something they’re struggling to go cope with right now and figure out, what do they do next?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, give us a little perspective on that. Even in the last couple of weeks, you had a lot of turnaround, or drama, I guess, in their prime-time schedule, Campbell Brown announcing she’s leaving, the stories about Larry King not pulling in the numbers he did before.

So, there — that’s the immediate issue, I guess, right, is dealing with that prime-time programming.

MATEA GOLD: You know, it’s interesting. Ever — so far this year, the network’s prime time ratings are off by 40 percent, which is really dramatic, especially compared to that of its competitors.

And the challenge for CNN, I think, was really underscored when Campbell Brown asked to be released from her contract. And she released a — really a remarkable statement, saying, plainly, “Not enough people are interested in the show that I’m putting on.”

And I think that kind of summed up the challenge CNN faces. It still has that brand and that identity of the place that people turn to for breaking news. But when that news subsides, it doesn’t offer the kind of really polarizing, opinionated, provocative host that you can find on FOX News and MSNBC in prime time.

And, so, the question they’re wrestling with right now internally is, what do they do? They are not going to abandon that dedication to, as they put it, nonpartisan journalism. But I think they are looking at ways to bring in sharper viewpoints and try to feed some of that appetite that viewers have at that hour.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Bob Furnad, put that in that larger perspective.

I mean, this issue of sticking to a middle ground type of straightforward journalism vs. the partisan journalism that is around them, this is a big issue for all of us in — in news, television and otherwise. How do you — how do you see what’s going on?

BOB FURNAD: Well, this has been very well put by your guest from The L.A. Times.

This is a real problem for CNN. And I don’t think that the solution is to go one way or the other. The solution is to stay where we are, stay in the middle of the road. But the network needs to create some appointment viewing, some programs during prime time that are not clones of what the others are doing.

They have taken one-hour programs and made excellent news/interview programs out of them. But, by 8:00 at night, by 10:00 at night Eastern time, people have gotten their fill of news, and, clearly, that’s not what they’re looking for.

So, there — I think there are some other opportunities, but, clearly, the direction which they have gone has not been — has not been — not worked right now. Larry King has gotten older on the air. He’s had the oldest demographics for years on the air. That’s not good for CNN. The advertisers want younger demographics.

JEFFREY BROWN: What — Matea, what — fill in the — the rest of the picture for CNN. How does all this affect their financial situation, their ability to keep what they have done so well for so long, the bureaus going, the reporting going, to be able to run and stay on the ground for the stories that do break?

MATEA GOLD: You know, ironically, CNN is on track to have a record profit growth this year that will be after six years of double-digit profit growth. And this is something that CNN executives continuously emphasize and are, frankly, quite frustrated by the focus on prime-time ratings.

Prime-time advertising makes up less than 10 percent of the overall revenues of the company. They say, you know what? This is not make-or-break for us. We have a business model that allows us to thrive. They rely a lot on cable subscriptions, both domestically and internationally.

And, so, they are actually still a very robust news organization, at a time when we have seen deep, deep cuts to other news organizations. So, I think for…

JEFFREY BROWN: How much…

JEFFREY BROWN: No, go ahead.

BOB FURNAD: Jeffrey, that’s — that’s a good point, but one thing that Matea mentioned was that part of the revenue stream comes from the cable operators. And that means that CNN has got to ask for top dollar for a news — a news network from the cable operators.

If the ratings are low, if the audience isn’t watching, CNN’s bargaining power with the cable — with the cable operators declines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you — you know, you both said that…

MATEA GOLD: And I…

JEFFREY BROWN: No, go ahead. Go ahead, Matea.

MATEA GOLD: I was just going to say, it’s also just an image problem.

I think that, you know, aside from the financial bottom line, right now, CNN has been battered, really with story after story, about its prime-time woes. And even though that’s just a fraction of their, you know, schedule across the board, that has created a perception that the network is no longer as vibrant and as essential as it used to be. And that’s something that deeply troubles people inside the network.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s the — that’s the case even though, Bob, you have both said that it still has this global presence. It still has the brand name.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much influence does it still have these days?

BOB FURNAD: CNN has great influence. It’s still watched in the power — power rooms around the world, in the State Department, in the Pentagon.

It’s still be — be counted on for information. It is still an electronic wire service for the world. And it’s got an immense news-gathering operation. It’s got over 600 affiliates in this country alone to give it material, plus all the foreign bureaus and arrangements with other countries where we don’t have bureaus.

So, CNN has an enormous news-gathering power. But it is — the fact that the material can’t get to an audience is — is troublesome.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there and — and watch.

Bob Furnad and Matea Gold, thank you both very much.

MATEA GOLD: Thank you for having me.