Sunday, May 28, 2000

Television news

In 20 years, CNN has changed the way we view the news

        We want news, and we want it now. So we turn on a cable all-news channel, or go to the Internet, for instant news.

        We seldom think how radical this concept was 20 years ago when Ted Turner launched his $20 million gamble, the Cable News Network, on June 1, 1980.

CNN (1980) has spawned many similar cable services:
• CNN Headline (1982)
• Weather Channel (1982)
• CNN International (1985)
• CNBC (1989)
• Court TV (1991)
• CNN Airport Network (1992)
• CNNfn (1995)
• MSNBC (1996)
• Fox News (1996)
• CNN/Sports Illustrated (1996)
• ESPNEWS (1996)
        We can't imagine life without clicking on CNN, or another news channel, any minute of the day. We can't fathom waiting for the 6:30 p.m. network news, as people did for the latest Watergate developments in the 1970s.

        CNN has changed our lives.

        “Twenty years ago, you had to sit when we told you to sit, and watch when we told you to watch. Now you can get the information anytime, anywhere,” says Steve Friedman, former Today show executive producer (1985-86; 1993-94) who oversees Bryant Gumbel's CBS Early Show.

        CNN is everywhere. It has grown from 1.7 million homes in 1980 to 78 million U.S. homes (and 890,000 hotel rooms). CNN can be seen in 212 countries and territories around the world. It has 10 U.S. news bureaus and 27 international bureaus.

        “You can't go anywhere and not see it,” says talk show host Larry King, who celebrates his 15th anniversary on CNN June 1, when the network turns 20.

        Mr. King, the former radio talk host, didn't have cable TV when Mr. Turner offered a nightly CNN show in 1985. “Now I can't imagine living without it,” he says.

        CNN has made him an international star. On a trip to Israel, Mr. King was praying at Jerusalem's Western Wall when a rabbi next to him asked: “What's up with Ross Perot?”

        CNN has changed news. Before CNN, events were reported in two cycles, for morning and evening newspapers and newscasts. Now news knows no cycle. When a plane has crashed, or shots are fired in school, we expect to see it immediately on all-news channels. We don't depend on the Big Three broadcast networks.         The turning point point came shortly after CNN's 10th birthday, when Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman provided play-by-play of the 1991 Gulf War from a Baghdad hotel.

        The Gulf war proved how CNN had changed the world. U.S. military leaders chose their words carefully during televised press briefings, knowing that Sadam Hussein was watching CNN, too.

        “Our sales people in Atlanta stopped counting after they had calculated on the first night of the (Gulf) war that we had an audience of more than one billion people,” Mr. Shaw said at the University of Kentucky shortly after the war.

        CNN's immediacy, and global satellite technology, has radically changed TV news. No longer can Today or Good Morning America open with long taped reports about yesterday's news.

        “It's not good enough to report a story; you've got to take them there,” says Mr. Friedman, the morning news veteran. “It's not good enough to talk about it; you've got to show them. People expect instant information, and you've got to give it to them.”

What: Twenty Years of Stories: This is CNN

When: 9-11 p.m. Thursday and Friday

Where: CNN

        CNN has made our world smaller. Jay Leno and other comedians joke about the O.J. Simpson trial, or the Berlin Wall demolition, knowing we've seen it on TV.

        “All these media outlets raise the reference level of the entire country to a much higher level, because we're all so much aware of everything that happens,” says comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's Daily Show (11 p.m. weekdays). “Our show is truly a reflection of the inundation of media.”         CNN has changed how we pick a president. Mr. Perot thrust himself into the 1992 presidential race from repeated appearances on Larry King Live. He announced his independent political party on the show in 1995. In the past decade, the path to the White House has gone through Mr. King's studio, where U.S. voters question candidates directly by phone.

        Because of CNN and its cable clones, the Big Three ceased comprehensive coverage of national political conventions. Already Ted Koppel has said he won't take Nightline to the conventions this summer. But Wolf Blitzer, Judy Woodruff, Frank Sesno, Mr. Shaw and Mr. King will be there.

        Mr. Shaw won't have any problems getting into the conventions this year. His entry was thwarted in 1980 by guards who hadn't heard of the 2-month-old Cable News Network.

        “When I got to the security gate, they wouldn't let me in because I had the wrong passes,” Mr. Shaw recalled. “Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor were in the same line, and they were very embarrassed for me. They just looked away ... and I was a few minutes late getting on the air. That doesn't happen any more.”         CNN's current stable of news stars is a long way from the roster Mr. Turner assembled for his 1979 announcement about launching CNN. His initial lineup was former CBS newsman Daniel Schorr; commentators Roland Evans and Robert Novak; psychologist Joyce Brothers; and astrologer Jean Dixon.

        Soon Kathleen Sullivan, Mary Alice Williams, Lou Dobbs, Catherine Crier and Arthur “Scud Stud” Kent became household names. Then respected journalists from the Big Three started jumping to CNN: CBS' Bruce Morton, and ABC's Jeff Greenfield, Jean Meserve and Rick Kaplan, now CNN president.

        Without CNN, who knows where Katie Couric and Dan Patrick would be today?

        Ms. Couric joined CNN as an assignment editor in 1980, shortly after college. She worked her way up from producing a two-hour news show to on-air political correspondent by 1984.

        Mr. Patrick, a 1974 Mason High School graduate, was hired by CNN in 1983 when Dayton's Channel 2 wouldn't offer him a full-time job. “I went to Atlanta (CNN) because a friend said they're hiring young people,” said Mr. Patrick, who joined ESPN in 1989.

        Yes, the hunch of one visionary dramatically changed our world.

        “You've got to give Ted Turner credit,” Mr. King says. “He was driving around in his car and heard the radio say, "This is WGST-AM. All news, all the time.' And he thought, "Why can't we do this on television?'

        “And 20 years later, look at it — all of these countries and billions of people have access to CNN.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.



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