They Said it Would Never Happen: CNN Turns 10 : “We have to reach for the stars and when we get there, find out what’s behind them and see if we can carry it live."--Cissy Baker, CNN vice president and managing editor
Before there were controversial reenactments of news stories, before there were stand-up prime-time news shows and long before comedians moonlighted as weather reporters and home video clips became commonplace on national newscasts, somebody came up with a really bizarre idea for TV news.
A nonstop newscast. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. To be broadcast around the world.
When media magnate Ted Turner announced his ambitious Cable News Network 10 years ago, he was roundly laughed at. Not surprising, considering the announcement came from a man whose WTB’ “superstation” in Atlanta used to fulfill its federal broadcasting requirements with a pie-throwing anchorman who once invited a German shepherd to co-anchor his newscast.
What’s more, the pending cable TV explosion had barely started to crackle. Still, Turner forged ahead, his sights set on unsettling the Big Three networks, which he compared to dinosaurs. “You know why they’re not here anymore?” he said in 1980. “Because the mammals ate their eggs. I’m a mammal.”
CNN’s beginnings were less than auspicious. During the Republican National Convention in Detroit a decade ago, CNN’s slipshod broadcasting booth was located in the rafters above the band, so that every time the band played “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” anchor Bernard Shaw was drowned out.
In time, however, Turner would sue the Reagan administration and the three networks for CNN to be included in the White House press pool. The network’s paltry audience of 1.7 million U.S. households would swell to more than 50 million. Its broadcasts would reach-indeed span-the globe to about 90 countries. And CNN’s continuous live coverage of breaking news events would become a reliable trademark that no broadcast station could match.
The Times asked some CNN veterans to briefly reminisce about their early experiences.
Ted Turner, president, CNN
“I came up with the idea for CNN back in 1975, when TBS first went up on satellite. Home Box Office was already in existence. Since they had the new movies and we had the old movies and non-network sports on TBS, I thought the next channel that would be convenient would be an all-news channel. That’s where I got the idea. . . Even though I did not have the money and did not know anything much about the news business, I just figured the concept was good enough to go ahead and give it a shot.
“The networks pooh-poohed us a little bit at first. But I really cannot say that I minded in retrospect.”
Bernard Shaw, Washington anchor
“In 1980, I was dissatisfied with the new contract I was being offered at ABC as senior Capitol Hill correspondent. I was tired of the network pool I had been swimming in. (ABC News president) Roone Arledge spent an hour in his office warning me it would be very bad for my career to go do something called CNN. When I left, most people weren’t even trying to conceal their derision, their snickers. My attitude when I walked into CNN was the same attitude I had at Marine Corps boot camp the first day. “I’m here. Let’s get on with it.”
“The moment I knew we were really onto something was when we carried Reagan’s speech before a labor group at the Washington Hilton Hotel. During a break, we were monitoring the Secret Service radios. Suddenly someone said, “They’re shooting at the President.’ We turned up the audio, and you could hear agents running, screaming and cursing. I said, ‘Let’s get on the air,’ and we didn’t get off until 10 hours later. We stayed with the story, no commercials. Our coverage of the assassination attempt convinced me that we were onto something. I wasn’t making as much money as Dan, Peter or Tom-I still don’t-but I knew I was in the right place.”
Ed Turner, executive vice president of news gathering
“We started out in half terror and half confidence. We all ran scared. Hell, we still do. The conventional wisdom was that CNN was not going to make it. They told us, ‘First, there’s no way you guys are going to get on the air. Second, if you get on the air, there’s no way you’re going to stay there. Third, if by some remote chance you do stay on the air, you’ll bankrupt Ted (Turner).’ Other than that, it was a lot of encouragement.”
Lou Dobbs, vice president of business news
“We didn’t know what to expect competitively. My principal concern was not that we couldn’t pull it off. But I wanted to know would CBS emulate? Would ABC duplicate? That was my fear. I knew that after we were on the air for six months, we would be very vulnerable to the networks. Starting a 24-hour news network required an investment by Ted Turner that could have bankrupted him, but to the networks that kind of money is pocket change. The fact that a successful imitator hasn’t arisen astounds me to this day. The networks’ failure to react to the competitive threat of CNN was the answer to my prayers.”
Sandy Kenyon, senior entertainment correspondent
“When I first walked into the Washington bureau, it was like going backstage at a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland MGM musical. They were still building the bureau about three weeks before air time. George Watson, a giant in journalism, was testing a microphone. Producers were literally hammering the sign of the bureau into place. And Daniel Schorr was walking around saying, ‘This is just what CBS was like after World War II.’ As a young journalist, I felt like this big ship was leaving, and I knew I had to be on it or get left behind.
“Ted (Turner’s) master stroke was to install a satellite dish and put CNN in the offices of Congress. The powerful people in the country turned to CNN the day shots were fired at Reagan to find out what was happening. Bernie (Shaw) was the hero of that one. He was the only network anchor not to declare Jim Brady dead, which was extraordinary given the pressure to do so. The three established networks had declared him dead, and Dan Rather held a moment of silence for him. That’s when I knew we were on our way.”
Daniel Schorr, senior news analyst, National Public Radio.
(Schorr was a CBS News correspondent before being hired as CNN’s first employee. He left in 1985 over a dispute for editorial independence.)
“Ted Turner approached me a year before he started CNN. He asked me to join him at the cable convention in Las Vegas, and then hired me 15 minutes before the press conference to give legitimacy to what he was going to propose. I didn’t know anything about cable. But as he outlined CNN to me, I saw the vision there, something inherently viable, a way to give people news 24 hours a day so that they could turn it on and off like a water tap. I liked the idea of live coverage as opposed to capsule coverage. I don’t know where he got his conceptions from, because I could tell he didn’t know anything about news.
“I knew CNN would be a success. What I didn’t anticipate was the extent of CNN’s success today. It would have been like asking me to foresee a revolution in Eastern Europe, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. I didn’t foresee that CNN would be seen in hotel rooms around the world. That CNN would be the pearl in Ted’s crown.”
Cissy Baker, vice president and managing editor
“I thought CNN would be successful. I always believed it would be. It was everybody else I had to convince. That became a second full-time job, really. I wish I had a tape recorder in the beginning, when I was running the Washington desk, trying to get an interview with a congressman or official. I would say, ‘Hi, this is Cissy Baker. I’m calling from CNN, Cable News Network, Ted Turner’s all-news, 24-hour network, based in Atlanta, Ga., with a bureau here in Washington. Do you get cable? Let me tell you about cable.’ And then after a while, I would get this, ‘I’m sorry, could you repeat that please?’ ”
Mary Alice Williams, anchorwoman, NBC’s “Sunday Today.”
(Williams left for NBC last year after nine years as a CNN anchorwoman.)
“It never occurred to us we couldn’t make this thing appen. In January of 1981, when we welcomed the hostages back at West Point, we set up cameras all along the bus route where they were arriving. But we didn’t have a switcher to cut between cameras. I was standing on top of this building in the freezing cold with an engineer, and the buses were coming. I said, ‘How do we do this? We have to switch between cameras!’ He said, ‘No problem,’ and he pulled some wires out of this box and touched them together, and the pictures switched. Nobody told me or him that it wouldn’t work.
“That was our mentality. The networks had a giant generator truck, and we were manipulating wires by hand.
“In the industry, CNN was a quiet revolution. But the fact is there was nothing quiet about it. On June 1, 1980, we went on the air at 6 p.m., Eastern time. Our lead story was live. Vernon Jordan had been shot, and we showed President Carter walking out of the hospital where Jordan was staying. At 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, the broadcast networks went on with their evening newscasts, and their lead story was Carter walking out of the hospital, and the footage said ‘Courtesy of CNN’ in the corner. That was our first night on the air.”
A DECADE OF CNN: 1980-1990
May: Ted Turner announces in a Las Vegas press conference the formation of Cable News Network, the world’s only 24-hour TV news operation.
December: RCA’s Satcom-3 satellite, which was to carry CNN on one of its transponders, gets lost in space four days after launch.
January: CNN takes shape in the sprawling basement of an $8-million antebellum-style country club in Atlanta that will house corporate headquarters and broadcasting operations.
March: Turner’s raid of the Big Three for a top-dollar editorial staff peaks. His hires include such headliners as Daniel Schorr from CBS and Bernard Shaw and Bill Zimmerman from ABC.
March: RCA consents to a decree issued in federal district court in Atlanta to provide transponder space to CNN on RCA’s satellite, cable TV’s original satellite.
June 1: At 3 p.m. PDT, CNN debuts its 24-hour news network to 1.7 million homes with a report on the shooting of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan Jr. CNN’s starting annual budget of $25 million is about one-fourth what the networks pay each year for their half-hour weekday newscasts.
December: Reported estimates are that CNN is losing $2 million a month.
January: CNN employs its first split-screen news coverage as the U.S. hostages are released at the same time Ronald Reagan is being inaugurated as President of the United States.
March: CNN makes its presence in the news world as Shaw is the first to report that shots are fired at President Reagan in an assassination attempt at the Washington Hilton Hotel.
May: Four broadcast stations, all network affiliates, seek to broadcast CNN over their airwaves in the overnight hours. Turner can’t oblige because of his exclusive deal with cable operators, so he announces plans for CNN2- later to be known as CNN Headline News-a 24-hour package of half-hour news shows to supply to broadcast stations.
June: Turner sues the Reagan administration and the three TV networks for excluding CNN from White House pool coverage. The suit would be settled a year later in CNN’s favor.
June: CNN’s first-year budget swells to a reported $35 million. First-year losses for the news network are estimated at $20 million.
December: CNN2 premieres in nearly 1 million homes.
March: The Great Cable News War heats up when ABC and Group W Satellite Communications announce an imminent launch date for Satellite News Channel, a 24-hour all-news TV network.
April: CNN qualifies for Nielsen ratings with 17% of TV households, totaling about 13.8 million homes.
April: CNN originates the first live American telecast from Cuba since 1958.
May: To prevent their affiliates from turning to CNN2, the three networks rush out through-the-night news programs such as “NBC News Overnight,” CBSU “Nightwatch” and ABC’s “The Last Word.”
June: Japan and Australia receive the first international distribution of CNN.
July: With the burden of promoting Headline News, CNN’s monthly losses are reported at $1.1 million.
October: A Home Video magazine survey found that CNN was the favorite cable service of TV viewers, beating out Home Box Office.
September: CNN orchestrates a controversial live Soviet press conference to explain the downing of a Korean jetliner.
October: Turner defeats archrival Satellite News Channel in a hard-fought legal battle for cable homes. SNC sells out to Turner for $25 million. CNN also defeats the Big Three commercial networks, who give up or cut back on their late-night news programming.
March: CNN is widely criticized for telecasting a controversial barroom gang-rape trial from Falls River, Mass. The broadcast marks national TV’s first live coverage of a criminal trial.
March: Jeremy Levin, CNN Beirut bureau chief, is kidnapped by an unnamed terrorist organization operating in Lebanon.
July: CNN provides the traditional gavel-to-gavel coverage of the summer’s political conventions that the Big Three networks abandoned.
April: CNN wins two George Foster Peabody Awards, one of the broadcasting industry’s highest honors, for news and information programming. The Peabody board says that CNN has “become an integral part of the lives of millions of Americans by providing up-to-the-minute news coverage on a 24-hour basis.”
February: The Syrian government obtains Levin’s release, almost a year after he was taken captive in Beirut.
March: CNN appeals to the U.”. Supreme Court to end a longtime ban on broadcast coverage of federal trials, an outgrowth of the network’s unsuccessful attempts a year earlier to telecast the $120-million libel suit brought against CBS News by retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland.
March: Veteran broadcaster and CNN headliner Schorr is fired because he wants to retain a clause in his contract guaranteeing him editorial freedom.
May: CNN signs two-year Ragreement of cooperation” with state-run Soviet broadcasting to exchangee new and programming.
June: CNN receives accolades when the seizure of a TWA airliner by Shiite extremists in Beirut leads to 17 days of almost uninterrupted live coverage.
June: Turner lures Mutual Radio talk show king, Larry King, to do a live TV talk how. “Larry King Live” has captured CNN’s highest ratings.
September: CNN supplies a live 24-hour news feed to Europe.
October: Turner says he wants to sell off part of CNN to ease the $1.5-billion debt that he will shoulder in his plans to buy out MGM/UA Entertainment.
November: Refusing to give up editorial control, Turner turns down a $250-million offer from NBC for 51% interest in CNN. NBC announces plans to begin its own 24-hour cable news operation.
January: CNN and CNN Headline News for the first time dip in the black with an operating profit of $18.8 million on revenues of $126.6 million in 1985.
January: Because shuttle launchings had become routine network news stories, CNN is the only national news program broadcasting live during the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
January: NBC drops plans for its 24-hour cable news service because of limited subscriber support.
April: CNN’s live coverage of the U.S. air strikes against Libya earns the network the Overseas Press Club Award.
July: Turner sparks protest when he starts scrambling satellite transmissions of CNN and CNN Headline News, requiring satellite dish owners to buy a special decoder and pay an annual fee for the news service.
March: CNN is criticized for using cheap, non-union workers. Although CNN employs roughly twice as many employees as the networks’ news divisions, CNN and CNN Headline News budget of $100 million is about one-third of their costs.
May-July: CNN joins PBS in carrying live, continuous coverage of the tense, heated Iran-Contra hearings that ultimately turned Oliver North into a national hero.
October: CNN receives its highest ratings to date for around-the-clock news coverage of 2-year-old Jessica McClure when she was trapped in a narrow well in her back yard.
October: Turner extends an invitation to broadcasters around the world, and “CNN World Report” is born. The global newscast features unedited, uncensored news reports contributed by broadcasters from about 100 countries.
April: CNN wins its second Peabody Award for breaking news coverage of the 1987 stock market crash.
May: CNN begins Spanish newscasts for Latino markets in the United States and Latin America.
May: As the Chinese government orders all international newscasters to cease broadcasting events in Tian An Men Square, Bernard Shaw keeps right on talking. While he is on air, armed government officials enter CNN’s headquarters, a hotel suite, and shut it down.
August: By linking up to a Soviet satellite, Turner makes CNN available to AArica, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, bringing CNN into 90 countries.
August: Turner launches the commercial-free “CNN Newsroom,” consisting of daily 15-minute news reports piped into about 6,000 U.”. schools in the early morning hours for teachers to record and use as an educational tool during the day.
October: CNN’s “The World Today” goes head-to-head with New York network newscasts in Eastern and Central time zones.
December: CNN’s operating profit exceeds $100 million.