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CNN: Far From Broken, but They're Fixing It : Entering its second decade, Cable News Network is making changes--and drawing criticism--in a bid for ratings

April 01, 1990|JANE HALL

ATLANTA — It is a busy day in the global village. George Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev and South African President F.W. de Klerk are all making front-page news. West Virginia is under a court order to close an overcrowded prison, the Toronto city council is considering a measure to curb the greenhouse effect and Japan is introducing a new bullet train.

Around a large conference table in the Atlanta headquarters of Cable News Network, the senior executives and producers of CNN gather at 8 a.m. to determine the run-down of stories and the deployment of troops--which stories should be covered live, which ones will be reported and shot by CNN's own correspondents and crews, and which will include video footage from international news services.

Since CNN, as advertised, is a 24-hour news channel with newscasts throughout the day, the pressure is to get the stories on the air as soon as possible, with updates for several newscasts through the day. "The broadcast networks focus their resources on their half-hour evening newscasts," Ed Turner, the CNN executive in charge of news-gathering, will say later in an interview. "Our charter is to get it in and get it on. Get it right, but get it on."

Yet, at the same time, there's another pull at CNN these days. Although producer Bob Furnad wants to know why a Washington reporter can't "turn a quick spot preview" of an upcoming speech by noon, he says of a feature on an endangered species, "Can we run it at 2? Don't ruin it."

"That's promotable," Turner says of a piece about an inventor who is successfully suing big auto companies.

The word promotable-- meaning an upcoming story that can be teased to keep zap-happy viewers tuned in--may never replace the word now at CNN. But as Cable News Network approaches its 10th anniversary in June, it is facing something of an identity crisis. Even as it grows, CNN is grappling with its vision of the future.

CNN has made its reputation with its round-the-clock, no-frills format and extended live coverage, from the revolution in China to the stock-market crash on Wall Street. In pointed contrast to the broadcast networks, CNN has prided itself on making the news--not the anchor--the star. But despite recent gains, CNN's Nielsen ratings have hit a plateau, averaging a 0.7 in the Nielsens over the course of a day in February (meaning that about 645,000 households are tuned in at any given time). Although the company is not under broadcast-style ratings pressure, having generated operating profits of $134 million in 1989, CNN executives are thinking about ways to bring in more regular viewers--and to provide the kind of in-depth analysis that its critics say it needs to grow beyond being a video wire service.

Does that translate into the high-profile investigative team that made its on-air debut last week? Will there be more "network"-style anchors like Catherine Crier, a former Texas judge who was hired last fall to co-anchor a CNN newscast without any experience in journalism? Says one CNN producer, "We're at a crossroads."

Once derided as the "Chicken Noodle Network" by broadcast-TV executives, CNN has upped the ante in broadcast news, forcing ABC, CBS and NBC to increase their live news coverage and regularly fly their anchors around the world to the scenes of big stories. So entrenched is the upstart that CBS executives recently went to Atlanta to court CNN founder Ted Turner, their old nemesis, about possibly sharing some news-gathering facilities. Now seen in 90 countries around the world, CNN has become such a force in video-geopolitics that President Bush is reported to have watched CNN to see how the invasion of Panama was going, and a recent CNN report that Gorbachev was considering resigning his position as chief of the Communist party immediately affected financial markets around the world. CNN won the prestigious Du Pont Award for its live coverage of the turmoil in China last year, which was anchored by Bernard Shaw and included dramatic on-camera negotiations with Chinese authorities trying to pull the plug on CNN.

"CNN has become an international habit . . . for catching fast-breaking news," says Ben Bagdikian, a professor at the graduate journalism school of UC Berkeley. Comparing CNN to a video wire service, Bagdikian says, "They operate around the clock and around the world, offering straight accounts of events without necessarily having it in depth, the way the networks try to achieve. The broadcast networks have countered by offering the big story in depth. But with their own cutbacks, the network are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."

"I believe we've established ourselves as the network where people know they can tune in when something happens, knowing we'll be there to stay with the story," Ed Turner says. "News is our only story, and we don't have to break into 'Major Dad' to do it."

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