Cable News Network (CNN) has become an icon of the globalized news world. CNN’s rise as one of the most prominent global news organizations is based on a successful strategic integration of three key spheres of journalism: (1) an innovative approach to internationalization; (2) the invention of unique presentation styles, such as “breaking news”; and (3) a continuous implementation of state-of-the-art technologies in order to reach clearly defined target audience segments.
Foundation And Early History
CNN was launched on June 1, 1980 in Atlanta, Georgia (USA) as a dedicated 24/7 news and information channel (24-Hour). CNN was the fourth specific channel of the first phase of cable television in the US: the movie channel HBO was launched in 1972 and the children’s channel Nickelodeon and sports channel ESPN were both started in 1979. News as well as political information programs had been reduced on prime-time network television throughout the 1970s in the US. However, CNN’s founder, Ted Turner, saw on one hand a potentially lucrative market niche and on the other a severe need for solid political information within the US television culture of the late 1980s.
Turner, owner of Atlanta-based superstation WTBS, envisioned a 24-hour program that would cover political, economic, and cultural issues in 30-minute components, framed as magazine-style journalism that would then be rebroadcast in continuous program loops. Given the need for low budget production as well as the experimental status of the channel in its early days, this program loop model helped to fill 24/7 airtime.
In 1980, CNN’s audience consisted of only one million out of the 13 million households who subscribed to cable television in the US. Although the established networks had cut back on news programs, they still had exclusive access to the international news gathering infrastructure and to a number of international correspondents, as well as exclusive satellite access. CNN as a newcomer was not yet able to hire foreign correspondents and was instead forced to establish new forms of one-to-one national and international cooperation: CNN would receive footage of events happening internationally from a particular broadcaster, and that broadcaster would exclusively receive CNN material on events in the US. This innovative news gathering structure created what was later called “breaking news” coverage, meaning covering events as the story unfolded – a journalism style that is today the norm among 24/7 news channels.
In these early days, the established US television networks and other news organizations did not take CNN seriously, which – in retrospect – allowed CNN to successfully expand into new and innovative territories. So successfully that ABC Westinghouse planned to launch a satellite news channel (SNC), airing headline-type news clips. In response, Turner formed CNN 2 Headline News on January 1, 1982, which clearly took the lead, given that CNN was already a popular news channel. Furthermore, Turner promised to pay cable operators $1 per subscriber to CNN 2, which quickly forced ABC’s SNC to close down. In 1985, NBC plans to launch an all-news channel also failed, given Turner’s successful negotiation with cable operators in the US.
Already in its early phase in the 1980s, CNN sent its signal abroad in order to establish a news exchange system with international broadcasters. In 1984, CNN was available in 22 nations of Central America and the Caribbean. In this first internationalization phase, the international channel consisted of CNN’s and CNN Headline News’s segments. In the early 1990s, CNN International (CNNI) began to produce news programs for an international market, such as The International Hour (co-anchored from London and Washington, DC), aired live from London, as well as World News.
Given the fact that cable and satellite television emerged in various worldwide media markets such as Europe and Japan, particularly due to deregulation of media ownership policies, CNNI rapidly expanded internationally by utilizing an increasingly competitive second-generation “direct-to-home” satellite infrastructure. In addition, selected CNN programs were delivered by regional channels, for example in Southern Russia, on Bahrain TV, and on Australian networks.
From the outset, CNN was forced to innovate in news journalism in order to compete with established news outlets nationally and internationally. One key aspect of CNN’s success throughout the 1990s was the “diversification” of news. Once gathered, news stories were repackaged and distributed through a system of outlets. Among these were Noticiero Telemundo CNN (for Hispanic audiences in the US), CNNI as well as so-called “out-of-home” channels, such as CNN Inflight (for inflight television), Airport Channel, and CNN Reel News in movie theaters as well as through a radio network.
However, it is often overlooked that CNN additionally served as a news agency by selling breaking news to news outlets worldwide. This service, called CNN Newsource, was established in 1985 with 22 participating stations and helped to sell a CNN flagship product, breaking news, to outlets worldwide. It constituted a major component of CNN’s revenue stream.
Covering breaking news in various parts of the world was possible through CNN’s cooperation systems with international leading broadcasters. One of these quite unique systems was the program World Report, which allowed international broadcasters to contribute news stories. A great number of international broadcasters from developing and developed countries have participated since the 1990s in this program and use this unique global platform to deliver their viewpoints to an international audience. As Don Flournoy argued: “The emergence of a political climate for freer use of the media and the easing of restrictions on the flow of electronic information across borders played a role for establishing such an egalitarian news arrangement” (Flournoy 1992, 49).
CNN And The 1990 –1991 Gulf War
CNN International gained further prominence in the 1990 –1991 Gulf War through a unique set of four factors. These were the use of the latest satellite technology (mobile uplink devices), which allowed “live” coverage from remote locations; access to a system of globally operating satellites to deliver images instantaneously; a powerful role in the controlled information flow of the “pool system” of journalists; and exclusive access to otherwise restricted war zones. These four factors enabled CNN to deliver a unique and unprecedented “live” war coverage to a worldwide audience.
The Gulf War of 1991 was the first “televised” war that “commenced and ended during US prime time” (Ammon 2001). The visual images of the war conveyed live by CNN and picked up by news networks in various world regions had an influence on the war strategy of the US administration and created a new journalistic terrain of real-time media diplomacy. These new effects of live news coverage, not only of wars and military conflicts but also humanitarian crises, have been described as the “CNN effect” (Robinson 2002), and as “headline diplomacy” (Seib 1997), highlighting the power of continuous coverage of conflicts as a new force in shaping foreign policy.
The Rise Of Competition
It was the role of CNN as the journalistic gatekeeper of the global crisis agenda that led to the launch of other international 24/7 news channels. Euronews, part of the European Broadcasting Union, was established in 1993, the television service of the BBC, BBC World, in 1995, the Arab news channel Al Jazeera (in Arabic) in 1996, Channel News Asia (English and Chinese) in 1999, Al Arabiya, in 2003, Al Jazeera English in November, 2006 and France 24, a transnational French news channel (in French and English, and from June, 2007, in Arabic), in December 2006, all attempting to challenge not only CNN but the “Anglo-Saxon” view of the world.
Within the US, CNN’s dominance faded due to other 24/7 news channels, such as Fox Cable News, a channel owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that competed with CNN for majority share of the US news audience, and MSNBC, as well as specialized news services such as Bloomberg TV, focusing on financial news. Turner sold CNN (along with the Turner Broadcasting System) to Time Warner, even as the Internet began to gain a new role in news journalism.
As more satellites became available, more television channels with news components were delivered worldwide to enable national broadcasters to reach an international audience, among them the Italian broadcaster RAI, Jordan TV, and CCTV-9, the English-language program of China Central Television. Latest developments enabled by broadband technologies included entire program platforms, such as Cyfra+, targeting a particular sub-national audience in various world regions.
CNN’s influence on transnational audiences and policymakers peaked in the early satellite age when the former UN Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali famously remarked in an interview in 1995 that CNN was the 16th member of the UN Security Council. This influence, however, began to fade due to the network character of digital technologies, such as satellite and Internet, in which news constituted only one layer of a personalized information network. CNN found itself competing not only with other transnational channels but with local news and citizen journalism being delivered instantaneously through websites, blogs, and mobile devices. Although the network had lost its dominant role in the global news sphere, it still constituted a powerful model for 24/7 news journalism.
- Ammon, R. J. (2001). Global television and the shaping of world politics. Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland.
- Flournoy, D. (1992). CNN world report: Ted Turner’s international news group. London: John Libbey.
- Robinson, P. (2002). The CNN effect: The myth of news foreign policy and intervention. London: Routledge.
- Seib, P. M. (1997). Headline diplomacy: How news coverage affects foreign policy. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Volkmer, I. (1999). News in the global sphere: A study of CNN and its impact on global communication. Luton, UK: University of Luton Press.