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CNN's Home-Front Offensive

Television: The world's most recognizable network is fighting for viewers in U.S., where news-show competition is forcing changes at Turner's 19-year-old cable station.

April 07, 1999|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — CNN's weather forecast these days includes the cloud conditions in Belgrade, so there must be a war on.

Nearly a decade after the Gulf War that put it on the map, Cable News Network has the art of covering crises down to a science. The screen shifts smoothly from live pictures of foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour inside an Albanian refugee camp to a sober press briefing at the Pentagon to a surreal live interview with radical Serb leader Arkan, blaming CNN itself for distorting his image.

Behind the scenes in Atlanta, one week into the Kosovo crisis, the network's international desk is eerily calm. Maps of the former Yugoslavia lie neatly folded on desks, and Serbian television airs live on tiny TV monitors next to the computers; a CNN interpreter, a continent away in London, provides running audio. The control room has a scrawled sign reminding chyron writers: "Airstrikes" is one word and "under way" is two in CNN's on-screen style. A producer quietly briefs Eason Jordan, president of international networks and global news gathering, on a reporter in Belgrade who has been dragged off by Serb officials.

The fact is, CNN does war really well. Its international presence helps it get access to world leaders whom other networks can't reach. Its 35 bureaus--more, Jordan claims, than ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox combined--put it in position to regularly beat the competition in getting equipment and knowledgeable personnel into a crisis region; it's CNN's satellite dish, dragged for eight hours down a refugee-clogged path, that ABC and NBC used to send pictures out of one Albanian camp last week. And, its smooth operation reflects the fact that, at 19 years old, cable mogul Ted Turner's baby now has a team that includes many employees with gray hair, unlike in the early days when a trip to the CNN newsroom revealed a sea of baby faces and enthusiasm, but little experience.

But wars are few and far between; the Monica Lewinsky scandal was, in all likelihood, a domestic aberration, and viewer interest in a possible indictment in the murder of child beauty pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey, which has many news organizations buzzing, may be fleeting. Since the Belgrade bombing began, CNN's viewership has spiked up 95%, but if history holds true, those viewers will disappear back into sitcoms and documentaries and confrontational talk shows once the war is over.

As one CNN insider puts it, the network has, hands down, the most recognizable TV network brand in the world; CNN News Group Chairman Tom Johnson (a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times) is fond of pointing out that CNN, in all forms, has the ability to reach more than 1 billion people. But too often that doesn't translate into U.S. viewers, particularly in the prime-time hours where the real money is made.

When CNN was the only game in town, that didn't matter so much. But the arrival of MSNBC and Fox News Channel two years ago has changed the game. Fox, in particular, quickly established itself as a competitor with a well-defined voice and attitude that could draw viewers whether a story is breaking or not. CNN is spending an extra $130,000 a day to cover Kosovo, but with more competition than ever, that figure is dwarfed by the millions CNN is pouring into projects to keep viewers tuning in during the down time. What it's learning so far is that there are no easy solutions.

Rivals Gained Ground as CNN's Ratings Flagged

Until the war started, CNN, while still highly profitable, was confronting first-quarter ratings that were off 10% in prime time from a year ago, even as rivals Fox, MSNBC and CNBC gained. Ratings for sister station CNN Headline News were off a full 13%, according to Nielsen Media Research. Full-day viewership was up marginally. The disappointing numbers come even as CNN in the last year embarked on a costly program to raise ratings, overseen by Richard Kaplan, a highly regarded executive producer brought in from ABC News in August 1997. "Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness," Kaplan says, acknowledging the fact that CNN's brand name is synonymous with breaking news.

The plan put in place by Kaplan, whose title is president of CNN/U.S., and other CNN executives is twofold: improve the network's day-in, day-out look, and try to lure viewers to regular programs when there isn't an all-consuming story such as a war, a strategy that seemed logical, given that viewers had already proved susceptible to shows such as "Larry King Live" and "Crossfire."

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