Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Day 24-Hour TV News Was Born

In my lifetime, I have literally witnessed the transformation of the world, a transformation that has been so profound, so all–encompassing, and, yet, at the same time, so subtle that it often seems that changes that took years to emerge happened overnight.

Sometimes major shifts in the human experience can be traced back to a single event on a single day — for example, July 4 is remembered more than two centuries later as the day this experiment in self–governance called America began — even if the seeds had been planted long before.

Thirty years ago today, Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network — and everything changed.

Not right away, of course. The change was gradual, but the seeds were planted on this day in 1980.

It's not hard to see the fruits today. There are many networks that provide news coverage 24 hours a day now, but in 1980, it was a new concept when David Walker and Lois Hart (a husband–and–wife team) anchored CNN's first broadcast.

Cable was not anywhere near as pervasive in 1980 as it is today, and local cable providers charged extra for many things (not just movie channels) that weren't offered as part of the basic package.

When CNN made its debut, I guess cable providers weren't sure what to do with it. In the town where I was living at the time, the local provider allowed viewers to watch CNN at no extra charge for the first few days, then it was relegated to the "extended" package, which included ESPN (which was still new itself at the time) and for which viewers had to pay extra.

CNN's initial programming was primitive, to say the least. It had no real model to follow, just a vague concept of providing viewers with the latest news whenever they switched on their TVs.

That could be quite dramatic — when there was breaking news. And 1980 had already had plenty of big events by June 1 — not to mention the ongoing drama of the American hostages in Iran.

But Turner and his crew of journalists seemed to be bewildered by how to fill the hours that seemed to drag on what had long been known in the news business as "slow news days."

That's not really surprising. CNN was a pioneer and much of what it did broke new ground. It evolved from a network that, essentially, began a brand–new broadcast every hour or half–hour (a precursor, I suppose, to the Headline News channel that came along in 1982) to a network that produced its own programming on all sorts of topics that were in the news.

And, in the last three decades, CNN became the go–to network whenever something big was happening.

On Jan. 28, 1986, CNN was doing something the other networks once did but had stopped doing — televising shuttle liftoffs.

Space travel, the traditional networks had concluded, had become routine, and televising a shuttle liftoff was not considered newsworthy enough to risk the wrath of daytime TV viewers who didn't want to see their game shows or soap operas interrupted.

So only CNN was on hand for the launch of Challenger on that cold day. But every network's news division had reporters on the scene before the sun went down — after it exploded minutes after liftoff.

Everyone was in the Gulf five years later when war broke out, but CNN's ability to be on the spot whenever something happened catapulted the network past the traditional networks in the public's estimation.

The Gulf War may have been the real turning point for CNN, giving it credibility with viewers and making household names out of some dedicated correspondents, like Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour.

And, of course, CNN was one of many networks with its cameras focused on New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

By that time, there were many cable networks trying to do what CNN had been doing for more than two decades. They learned from CNN's mistakes and provided news shows that were as polished, if not always as accurate, as CNN's.

Both CNN and its competitors have been bringing viewers important breaking stories in recent years — Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 presidential campaign, etc. CNN has lost some of its audience, and it wouldn't surprise me if many of its staffers often feel like the pioneers like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who made CBS News the dominant name in news coverage for earlier generations — only to see their grip on the top spot give way to newcomers like CNN.

It was always part of CNN's mission to be experimental. It has launched specialty channels that failed and specialty programs that never caught on.

But it has changed the world and how journalists report on the events that occur in it.

And only those who work — or have worked — for the network are truly free to say, as James Earl Jones has said for many, many years ...

"This is CNN."

1 comment:

askcherlock said...

What a great post! I remember the early days of CNN well and really got hooked during the first Gulf War. I do think they give a fine representation of the news. And you're right---no one but James Earl Jones should ever utter those words.