CNN: Marketing news as a product
THE NETWORK IS FACING NEW CHALLENGES AS IT COMPLETES 30 YEARS, WRITES ASHOK ORGA
It was in June 1980 that the world saw the birth of Cable News Network ( CNN ) – the world’s first 24 hour news channel, thereby heralding the new era of immediacy and linking the world to major events, no matter where they occurred. The tagline ‘It is always primetime somewhere’ best summed up the ambitions of the founder of this new cable network Ted Turner. The word immediacy may sound archaic and blasé in our WWW and Twitterized world but it needed great vision and courage in Ted Turner to think of launching a 24 – hour news channel at that time. The first broadcast became an event by itself with a ‘married pair of news anchors hosting the show’. This perhaps was the first indication of the rules that the Network would change to meet its objectives and capture the world -wide audiences. In fact, CNN changed the way TV journalism worked – get the news now as it happened and not wait for the evening broadcast. For the first time the morning newspapers realized that they have had to compete with CNN for attention of its readers. Initially, the newspapers ignored the network on the assumption that it was so unpolished and staffed with so many low-paid youngsters, and dubbed it as ‘Chicken Noodle Network’ (short for CNN). Perhaps, the newspaper veterans did not realize then that for the new Network, News is a product to be packaged and marketed – initially to Americans and later to worldwide audiences. It, therefore, made perfect sense that the Network started its operations from a Shopping Mall complex in downtown Atlanta.
It began its operation in June 1980 with a minimal staff of 25. However, at the time of the launch ceremony, the flag of the United Nations was raised alongside those of the United States and the state of Georgia, hinting at Turner’s global ambitions. Quoted in a book called ‘CNN- Making News in the Global Market’, by Don Flournoy and Robert Stewart, Turner says that his worldwide yacht racing activities had given him a global perspective: “The thing that made me think internationally was… sail-boat racing. It made me realize how parochial most Americans are. We think like the Romans did at the time of Roman empire that the world somehow circles around us, and that we are the centre of the universe”.
Ted Turner was born in 1938 and took over the family business of Billboard after his father died when he was 24 . A skilled yachtsman, he won the America’s Cup in 1997 with his vessel appropriately named Courageous. Ted Turner was driven by the notion that existing broadcasts networks did not serve viewers well enough, that they had similar narrow agendas and did not cover the world as it should be covered. His vision was to have CNN become a truly international news channel, spanning the globe. His plan, in any case, was a radical one for the period. He had realized that by using satellites for delivery, he could reach consumers without the helping hand of local broadcasters. The challenge lied in the fact that in 1980 only about 20 per cent of US televisions households could receive cable television, and Turner’s News Channel reached only 1.7 million of those households – far fewer than were needed to make a profit. But Ted Turner persisted with his venture convinced that the network will turn profitable and in 1981 launched a second channel, CNN Headline News – which provided quick news updates, as opposed to CNN’s broader analysis. By the mid-1980s things were changing. Both CNN and CNN Headlines News were uploaded onto an international satellite, creating CNN International in 1985. Most credit the network's coverage of the CHALLENGER disaster in 1986 as the moment that CNN came of age, when it was the only TV channel broadcasting the catastrophic launch of the space shuttle. However, it was the Tiananman square protest with students trying to stop the march of tanks that provided the channel an opportunity to report an international event.
CNN further enhanced its global reputation in the 1991 Gulf War when it was the only news outlet to broadcast directly from Baghdad during the initial air strikes. The channel dominated perhaps the biggest news story since Watergate of interest to the US audiences. Soon afterward, academics and Pentagon officials began talking about the 'CNN effect.' First studied by Professor Steve Livingston of the George Washington University, the CNN effect described how the broadcast of events from around the world affected US foreign policy formulation.
Similarly, CNN's coverage of the anarchy and famine in Somalia in 1992, for instance, was a major factor in the decision by the first President George Bush ( Sr.) to send troops there on an ill-fated humanitarian mission. A year later, CNN's footage of the body of a US soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu prompted then- President Bill Clinton to withdraw US forces. In that sense its significance 30 years later goes far beyond the television or media worlds. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Channel enjoyed access to over 250 million households worldwide and more than 30 CNN branded products covering TV, Internet, Radio and mobile services. And yet thirty years later, CNN has struggled to maintain its position as the go-to source for news and has been hard hit by competition from other cable news networks that sprang up in its wake. Channels like Fox News and MSNBC have taken a partisan approach to coverage in the US, while the competition for ratings has spawned a sensationalized news culture that values the controversy and cheaply produced talk shows.
Similarly, on the global scene the British Broadcasting Corporation has emerged world's premier news network. It is available to viewers in more than 200 countries, has 36 bureaus around the world, more than 900 affiliated local stations and boasts a team of 4,000 news professionals. Also, the CNN coverage post the attack on World Trade Towers in Afghanistan and Iraq betrayed lack of journalistic integrity, accuracy and impartiality. The concept of ‘Embedded’ journalism became a camouflage for panning to US interests and concerns. Truth became a casualty. As did trust. As one commentator has said: “Embedded reporting is a good idea, but it shouldn't be the only food item on the menu. Getting coverage only from embedded reporters is like looking only into a microscope. What we need is something of the broader picture, and the chance to know other aspects of the whole enterprise.”
It delivered to the US public sensational, pro-war news reports. During the war, most journalists were "embedded" with US military units, giving them a very one-sided picture of the conflict and ruling out even-handed reporting. Other journalists who decided to go "free-lance" came under attack by the US military and two popular Arab television offices were directly bombed by the US air force. The media largely toed the Bush administration line in covering the war and, by doing so, failed to aggressively question the motives behind the invasion. The press muzzled itself and also allowed to be muzzled. The CNN coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts lend credence to what Ted Turner is reported to have remarked before founding the Network: “I hate news. News is evil. It makes people feel bad”. While it fed the egos back home, the audiences outside of the US showed their dislike of CNN by switching to other satellite channels including the BBC and the first Middle East owned satellite news channel Al Jazeera. Ironically, while the first Gulf War gave CNN a huge leg up, it was the second Gulf War that hastened its downfall from the position it occupied in 1980s and also in 1990s. Gulf War II was barely twenty-four hours old when CNN lost its first major battle. “You are worse than the American administration,” an Iraqi censor fumed to CNN correspondent and continued “get out of Iraq! Get out immediately!” Like the older media outlets it first outpaced, CNN has been further challenged by the ubiquity of news on the internet and the real-time reporting on sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter - illustrated during big recent events such as the demonstrations in Iran and the earthquake in Haiti.
The founder in Ted Turner has also moved on relinquishing the charge at CNN ( or was he made to step-down in 2003 after he sold his entire television empire to AOL – Time Warner in 1996?), and the Network is facing tough competition and new challenges. Realizing that it was losing audiences to competitors, CNN tried hard to ‘de-nationalize’ its brand identity by recruiting more and more local staff but other satellite news channels were already eroding its viewership base. The executives have been at pains to explain that ‘CNN is one church with different sermons’ or ‘ CNN is not an Atlanta channel that strives to be international, but an international channel that happens to be based in Atlanta ’. But the audiences across the world do not seem to be listening. It is said that number one component of successful branding is consistency. We should grant it to the channel that the ‘CNN logo has stood the test of time’. But we need to remember that viewers tune in to a channel for content, not for Logo.
(The author, a native of the valley, is a noted Management and Media Educator and is currently Founding Director of Apeejay Institute of Communication. He was till recently Vice President, Discovery Channel & Animal Planet in South Asia. Feedback at email@example.com)
Lastupdate on : Wed, 23 Jun 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Wed, 23 Jun 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Thu, 24 Jun 2010 00:00:00 IST
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