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TELEVISION : If CNN Can't Eat the World, Who Can? : The all-news channel continues down the path toward a truly international operation, even it it means being less American

July 18, 1993|JANE HALL | Jane Hall is a Times staff writer

ATLANTA — In corners of the football field-sized CNN newsroom here is an enterprise that executives call the future of the all-news channel.

In one area, anchorwoman Bobbie Battista is standing by to introduce U.S. Senate hearings. In another, producers in a swirl of phone banks and monitors are looking at footage from Turkey, Mexico, South Africa, Bosnia and other countries to decide what to broadcast. A group of writers downstairs is writing newscasts in Spanish for South America, while another group elsewhere is selecting stories for a business show aimed at stockbrokers in Asia.

Welcome to CNN International. It originates in the same headquarters as CNN and uses some of the same personnel, news footage and programming--but it is not the same satellite network that U.S. viewers have grown accustomed to seeing during the past 13 years. Indeed, CNN I, as it's known at the company, was originally criticized as "too American" and quietly has been building its own distinctive image, with more foreign news and a different worldview from CNN. It has its own writers, is hiring its own anchors and is producing newscasts that increasingly are tailored to specific international audiences.

"Our goal is to be a global news network in English, serving the world," declares CNN President Tom Johnson (a former publisher of The Times). "We want to get CNN I into as many homes as possible around the world. CNN I is the highest priority of Turner (Broadcasting)." Ambitious as that sounds, it is not going uncontested. World Service Television, from the British Broadcasting Corp., is challenging CNN International in the race to provide worldwide news coverage.

When CNN International was launched in 1985, it was essentially a repackaged version of CNN's Headline News channel aimed at business travelers and beamed by satellite to hotels in 20 countries. "Today," Johnson says, "CNN I is a separate network, and we are providing news programs designed for the prime-time news hours of Europe, Asia and South America." The leader in the global distribution of television news, CNN I reaches 69 million households in 142 countries, from Tahiti to Russia, from Denmark to the Sudan.

Reasons both journalistic and financial are fueling the channel's evolution.

CNN founder Ted Turner was an early internationalist in TV news, building bureaus around the world and, several years ago, even banning the use of the word foreign (ethnocentric, he thought) on the CNN domestic channel. Viewer response from other countries encouraged taking the broader view. "Audience reaction to CNN I and our own research shows that viewers want more content about their part of the world," Johnson says. "They want a significant amount of international news, without dropping the important stories from the U.S."

Accordingly, the ratio of U.S. to foreign news, about 70-30 when CNN I started, will be about 30-70 by the end of the year, Johnson hopes. CNN correspondents frequently do different versions of their stories for CNN I, and the network also draws footage from a slew of foreign TV networks. In addition, CNN I has increased the coverage that appears only on the international network: In recent weeks, for example, it did hourlong specials on politics in South Africa and on the royal wedding in Japan. The network also provided live coverage of a recent news conference by Chinese leader Li Peng, his first in two years.

Even more important as an impetus to CNN I's changes are the possibilities for new revenue. With expansion in the United States relatively limited, CNN is not alone in realizing that going international means reaching a still-untapped market of huge proportions.

There are more than 1 billion TV sets worldwide--a 50% increase in the last five years--and the number is expected to grow by 5% each year. Countries that heretofore had little or no TV are suddenly accessible by satellite, and U.S. program services such as HBO and MTV are among those racing to fill the anticipated demand for programming.

"There are going to be 10 global TV networks," predicts Ed Atorino, media analyst for the Dillon, Read investment firm in New York. "The ones that will succeed will have internationally known brand names."

The financial potential of global TV--from both subscription fees and advertisers--is enormous. According to Steve Winram, research director for London-based Zenith Media, an international media-buying subsidiary of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, global TV advertising totaled $217 billion last year and is expected to grow to $259 billion by 1995.

Whereas U.S. television advertising revenues are expected to increase by a relatively small percentage (from $31 billion last year to $35 billion in 1995), those in Europe are expected to grow at a faster clip during the same period (from $19 billion to $27 billion) and in Asia are projected to grow from $18 billion to $22 billion.

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