U.S. Cable Network

The Cable News Network (CNN) ranks as one of the most important, indeed perhaps the most important, innovation in cable television during the final quarter of the 20th century. In 1984 CNN first began to earn wide-spread recognition and praise for its nearly around the clock coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. By 1990 Ted Turner's 24 hour-a-day creation had become the major source for breaking news. Praise became so routine that few were surprised when a mid-1990s Roper survey found viewers ranked CNN as the "most fair" among all TV outlets, and the Times Mirror's Center for The People & The Press found viewers trusted CNN more than any television news organization.

But success did not come overnight. Launched in June 1980 by the then tiny Turner Broadcasting of Atlanta, in the beginning CNN (mocked as the "Chicken Noodle Network") accumulated losses at the rate of $2 million a month. Ted Turner transferred earnings from his highly profitable superstation to slowly build a first rate news organization. CNN set up bureaus across the United States, and then around the world, beginning with Rome and London. Yet at first Turner and his executives were never sure they would even survive the stiff competition from rival Satellite NewsChannel, a joint venture of Group W Westinghouse and ABC. In January 1982 Turner let Satellite News Channels know he was serious and initiated a second CNN service, "Headline News." Through 1982 and most of 1983 CNN battled SNC. In October 1983 ABC and Westinghouse gave up and sold their news venture to Turner for $25 million, ending effective competition for CNN in the United States.

CNN then took off. By 1985 it was reaching in excess of 30 million homes in the United States and had claimed its first profit. Turner added bureaus in Bonn, Moscow, Cairo and Tel Aviv, and in the years before Court TV alone televised celebrated trials such as the Claus von Bulow murder case. In 1987 when President Ronald Reagan met Mikhail S. Gorbachev at a summit that would signal the end of the Cold War, CNN was on the air continuously with some seventeen correspondents on site. By 1989 CNN had 1600 employees, an annual budget was about $150 million, and was available in 65 countries with such specialized segments such as a daily entertainment report, Show Biz Today, and a nightly evening newscast, The World Today. Larry King had moved his interview show to CNN and become famous for attracting ambitious politicians and infamous celebrities. In 1991, as the only TV network in the world operating live from the very beginning of Operation Desert Storm, CNN reported everything the military permitted--from the first bombing of Baghdad to the tank blitz that ended the conflict. Indeed at a press conference after the initial air bombing runs by the U.S. Air Force, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and General Colin L. Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted that they were getting much of their war information from CNN.

But the fame of CNN's Gulf War coverage did not turn into corporate fortune because the costs of coverage of a wide ranging set of battles had risen faster than advertising revenues. Indeed the crest came on the night of the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq when CNN captured 11% of the audience as compared to the usual 1 or 2% normal audience shares. Advertising time had already been sold. Still as the late 1980s and early 1990s provided regular disasters, wars, and "media events," CNN was able to experience surges in interest and thus take in ratings binges around the fascination peaked by the confrontations at Tiananmen Square, the calamities of the San Francisco earthquake, and the long awaited announcement of the verdict in O. J. Simpson's "trial of the century."


Courtesy of CNN

Whatever the news mix, CNN's prestige never stopped rising. It became a basic component of how the new global village communicated. So when United States troops invaded Panama in 1989, the Soviet foreign ministry's first call did not go to its counterpart in the United States diplomatic corps, but to the Moscow bureau of CNN--a statement could be read on camera condemning the action. Ted Turner proudly told anyone who would listen that Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Nancy Reagan, and Fidel Castro all had declared themselves faithful viewers of CNN. But as CNN moved well past 50 million households reached in the United States (and millions more abroad), all was not calm inside the organization. Staffers began to grumble about low wages and pressure not to unionize. And by the early 1990s Ted Turner seemed to lose his innovative magic. In 1992 he heralded and launched an "Airport Channel," and a "Supermarket Channel," but neither added much in the way of new audience or profits. And as CNN reached over more and more of the world, indigenous local news organizations began to publicly label Ted Turner a "cultural imperialist."

Yet there was no doubt that as CNN turned fifteen in June 1995 it had surely become a prosperous and important part of the new world of cable television. Yearly revenues neared one billion dollars, but growth stalled as advertisers realized that the CNN audience was "too old" and "not as affluent" as could be found elsewhere. The year 1995 was most eventful. First Ted Turner sold his complete operation, including CNN, to mega-media giant Time Warner and skeptics grumbled that a serious news organization would have difficulty trying to function as part of such a corporate colossus. At the end of the year Microsoft announced it would ally with NBC to form MSNBC to directly challenge CNN. Rupert Murdoch's News Corps., Inc., and Capital Cities/ABC also promised future 24-hour news services to contest CNN around the world. Whatever the future held by the mid-1990s CNN had become the stuff of legend. Ted Turner had forever changed the history of television news with his innovation of CNN.

-Douglas Gomery


Bibb, Porter. It Ain't as Easy as It Looks: Ted Turner's Amazing Story. New York: Crown, 1993.

Picard, Robert G., Editor. The Cable Networks Handbook. Riverside, California: Carpelan, 1993.

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


See also Cable Networks; News (Network); Superstation; Turner, Ted; Turner Broadcasting Systems