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Honey, I Shrunk the World

What has changed at CNN since the early days of Ted Turner?

November 4, 2002

What has changed at CNN since the early days of Ted Turner?

New York City has a global reputation for attracting world-savvy business executives. It isn't the world's media capital without reason.

And yet, in the aftermath of the AOL-Time Warner merger, those ever so worldly executives have had nothing better to do than to dismantle one of the average U.S. TV viewers' best windows on the world.

Everyday life in the United States is hectic under the best of circumstances. But convenience culture is the hallmark of this nation.

It had become clear to CNN executives long ago that people wanted to get their news whenever they wanted to get it — and not when the major networks might have scheduled it.

Who, in other words, can be sure to be home at 6:30 pm or 7 pm sharp in order to catch the evening news? Even with the best of intentions, given the long commutes and clogged roads, there is no way of predicting when one might arrive at home.

This reality was the core insight obscured by the indomitable Ted Turner and his start-up crew back in 1982 when they set up a new cable channel, called Headline News.

It made life so much easier. Thanks to the CNN News team's efforts, you could arrive home pretty much at any point during the day — and be sure to catch the day's news. It was there every half hour on the dot — and lasted for a full half-hour.

This broadcasting concept surely helped beat the strains and stresses of civilization as much as one could realistically hope.

What was even more pleasing, especially to internationally minded Americans, was that — thanks to having CNN as its parent — this channel was very global-minded in its approach to the news.

After all, Americans generally live in a country where the major networks' news programs had long turned away from hard reporting on world events.

Instead, they turned themselves too often into some kind of tear-sucking — or otherwise overly emotional — shows aimed at wide audiences, along with their very domestic, anti-news appetites.

Under Ted Turner's leadership — and that of the top CNN executives he appointed over the years — Headline News provided important relief. It provided an efficient window on the world. Even in the age of the Internet, here finally was a 24-hour newscast that was still courageous enough to open each program with images from the Middle East, Ireland — or wherever an international crisis might be brewing.

And, appropriately enough, if there was major news from Washington on a battle over the federal budget or missile defense, it would not only cover that item somewhere during the broadcast — but lead with it.

No longer. After the merger between AOL and Time Warner, worried business executives witnessed their company's declining stock price with great nervousness.

The marketing experts were quick to point out the presumable problems: CNN's audience is old, with an average viewer age of 64 years of age. And for Headline News, the figures were only slightly better. Its average viewer was 54 years of age.

Of course, the U.S. population is aging as well. That would suggest that CNN was moving nicely in line with the nation's overall demographics.

But the problem lies elsewhere: It is that advertisers want young viewers — and young viewers want their programming in a certain way.

Guided by this impeccable logic, out went all the "old" stuff — and staff. And in came the twenty-somethings — often with little news or apparent broadcasting experience of any kind.

The most unfortunate development, however, was that the marketing executives guiding the re-launch went, predictably enough, for the lowest common denominator.

What their marketing savvy told them was that the nation essentially wanted a national version of the local news. In other words, lead each evening with the latest incidence of mass murder in one part of the United States or another.

On more fortunate days, much of the show's coverage is devoted to the latest wildfire or hurricane.

The recipe for success? No matter what the actual story hook is, always focus on the community reaction. How do you feel about the events? Did you expect this to happen? How is this event going to change your life?

In short, what happened at Headline News was another big push forward in the direction of the great trivialization of life in the United States.

Curiously enough, all of that is, of course, undertaken in the spirit — and midst — of the Great Information Age. Why should anyone worry about that?

Well, wouldn't you be concerned if U.S. television viewers are systematically trained not to be able to deal with complex information flows in an increasingly complex world?

Clearly, in light of the loaded global agenda, Americans would be well served by their media masters if the latter were inclined to challenge the minds of the former.

That would mean to offer programs other than the latest insidious invention of yet another "reality" show or sitcom.

And then, there was a final irony. As if adding insult to injury, the new TV executives at CNN's Headline News literally decided to compress all world events into a single minute each show — and reserve the remaining 29 minutes for U.S. coverage.

What in the past, depending on the news flow, might have taken up as much as half of the news program now appeared in a program module which they aptly — and deftly — titled the "Global Minute."

Never mind that September 11, 2002 — for some time at least — manifestly pointed to the absurdity of such a concept.

But all's well that end's well. True, the advent of bin Laden meant more focus on international news. And yet, pretty much in line with the fading of Ossama bin Laden, Headline News is back to its old new ways.

Instead of news providing insight into an uncertain world, the younger U.S. TV demographic is fed "news you can use" — such as the release of the latest on-line video game.

Due to corporate machinations, Time Warner may have succeeded in removing the last of the top executives of the Ted Turner era at CNN.

But one day, its executives may have to account for the fact that, based on all those amazing and very convincing marketing statistics, it did the nation a great disservice.

The saga will be told like this: Once upon a time, there was a man who was (and is) widely considered a hick (=Ted Turner). He operated from a base that used to be considered a hick town (=Atlanta).

Almost against all odds, this odd pair came up with a great and truly global information product. But then, when the globe-trotting executives from AOL/Time-Warner took over the reins, they came up with an amazing solution.

Sure, as individuals, Mr. Pittman and others received a lot of stimulation for themselves during their Beijing dinners, Bermuda vacations and London theater visits.

But evidently, they decided to keep all that glitz and flair and stimulus and challenge, which the entire world provides, off limits.

As regards "the masses" — read: the TV audience —these executives prefer feeding the lowest common denominator “stuff,” but nothing global or mentally challenging in scope.

And yet, the media — even though they mostly are private enterprises — still have a public duty to inform Americans about the goings-on worldwide.

People must have the tools to shape informed opinions and to understand complex events if they are to make smart decisions. CNN — in its new Headline News format — is falling short of this responsibility.