Happy 40th Birthday, CNN

In January of 1970, Comsat executive Dan Karasik predicted that, at some point in the coming decade, “…I can’t think of an event of any importance that won’t be on television world-wide. We’ll see a world broadcasting union with operating centers going twenty-four hours a day, planning and sharing programs…Maybe we’ll see a daily or twice-daily world-news round-up, with live reports from many parts of the globe — wherever news is happening. The world will be one big mixing pot. And culturally, we’ll all be much richer people because of it.”

Karasik’s prediction proved to be remarkably accurate. Later that same year, a successful and flamboyant business tycoon named Ted Turner — president of an Atlanta area billboard company — purchased WRJR-TV, a small UHF station in the city. A decade later, On June 1, 1980, Turner launched his Cable News Network.

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Print ad announcing CNN’s arrival on the television news scene.

The formative years of cable TV saw a number of broadcasting concepts and networks succeed, fail, or evolve. Even so, the idea of a 24-hour, all-news network struck many industry leaders and observers as ludicrous. But the ever confident Turner took the skepticism and mockery in stride. “I knew it was gonna be a hit before it went on the air,” he once told longtime CNN talk show host Larry King.

On June 1, CNN news anchors David Walker and Lois Hart welcomed viewers to a new era of news broadcasting, with the bustle of the open newsroom in full view behind them. Other on-air personalities helping to launch the network included Lou Waters and Kathleen Sullivan. But construction of the newsroom hadn’t yet been completed by that first day, and the sounds of drills and hammers punctuated some of the early programs. The many on-air technical glitches were due in part to equipment that hadn’t even been tested before their installation.

Atlanta served as the network headquarters, with major bureaus in Washington, D.C. and New York City. Respected ABC veteran Bernard Shaw took on the role of Washington bureau chief, and NBC anchor Mary Alice Williams left that network to head the New York bureau, located just off the lobby of one of the World Trade Center towers (complete with a glass wall enabling passers-by on the concourse to peek in on the newsroom activity). The first foreign news bureaus were set up in London, Rome, and Peking.

In those early days of the network’s operation, it became apparent that a bigger staff would be needed, but the limited hiring budget couldn’t allow for it. The solution was to recruit college broadcasting majors from around the country, offer them a brief introductory seminar on how to use the CNN studio equipment, and have them learn the rest on the job. Little pay and long hours were the order of the day for all CNN employees, but the certainty that they were a part of a revolutionary undertaking provided an energy and loyalty all its own. So began CNN’s history of covering major events and breaking news from around the world and reporting them live, often beating the long-established major broadcast networks to the punch.

Skepticism about CNN’s chances of success endured well into its first year. In the September, 1980 issue of Panorama magazine, broadcast journalism expert Edwin Diamond reported his early impressions of the network’s first few months of on-air operations. “CNN is not very good journalistically,” he said. “Can anyone, even with unlimited resources offer intelligent, useful, ultimately clarifying news and information around the clock?”

But the network had its supporters, including the head of ABC News, Roone Arledge. “Any 24-hour news service can work, should work,” he said, in that same issue of Panorama. “I was very impressed with their operation when they first started. It is serious; it is interesting. I’m a little troubled that, having all that time, they don’t use it for more important functions. I don’t know whether Turner will survive or not. My gut feeling is that he’s under-financed, but maybe not.”

About eighteen months after CNN’s launch, on January 1, 1982, a sister network, CNN-2, began broadcasting. Renamed CNN Headline News the following year, its broadcasts were designed more as packaged half-hours, rather than as a continuous stream of news that had defined its older sibling.

CNN enjoyed sixteen years as the only 24-hour news network, making it television’s version of the New York Times’ status as America’s “newspaper of record.” By late 1987, the network had reached more than half of all U.S. television homes. But on July 15, 1996, MSNBC (created as a partnership between NBC and Microsoft), began its own 24-hour news operation, and, just three months later, on October 7, the Fox News Channel kicked off its inaugural broadcast.

Competition among the three cable news networks grew in intensity in the years since, causing gains and losses of viewership by all three at various times. While Fox News and its more politically conservative philosophies were counter-balanced by the liberal leaning MSNBC, CNN more or less held the center (and felt the inevitable criticism from both sides at times). But CNN has also seen an erosion of viewership of its daily afternoon and prime time programs, boosted only by coverage of major breaking news stories.

What will the future hold for this network, and for its competitors? That’s a question for greater minds than mine to analyze and prognosticate. For now, perhaps a happy 40th birthday is sufficient. And, for whatever occasional complaints some of us may have about CNN, be it about its balance of coverage, on-air personalities, or whatever, we will no doubt continue to rely on its coverage of breaking news (which, of course, has been coming at us like multiple tsunamis lately) to keep in immediate touch with an ever-changing, and often disturbing, flow of events all over the world.

Much of this article is an excerpt from my book For the First Time on Television, available at Amazon.com. For more information, please refer to my web site, www.GarryBerman.com.

Until next time…

Written by

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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