When Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III started his 24-hour news service, Cable News Network, in 1980, he told his small staff that he intended to buy two old hotels. He added: “On a slow day we’ll set them on fire and let the cameras roll. A hotel fire is always big.” Seven years later, as CNN’s ratings soared with its live coverage of the hour-by-hour rescue drama of a little girl trapped in a well in Texas,
Turner said he might put candy bars on the edges of old wells all over the country. The 50-year-old Atlantabased entrepreneur has become famous for such provocative remarks.
But while tastefulness is not one of his strong points, Turner’s driving energy and aggressive business acumen have propelled CNN into a global enterprise.
Now, his all-news network will have a Canadian counterpart when the CBC’s 24-hour Newsworld service starts this week.
Expanding: With remarkable speed, the CNN operation that began shakily with a small, underpaid staff of 300 and a $25-million annual budget has developed into a huge organization with a 1,600-member news staff, nine bureaus in the United States, 12 abroad and more
being planned, and a budget of $207 million. The service is carried by cable into 51 million homes in the United States and 1.3 million in Canada, and it now reaches audiences in 83 countries—in fact, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher watches it in her
office. Still, Turner continues to promote the service extensively abroad.
The man behind that expanding business often makes news himself. Since launching Turner Broadcasting System Inc. (TBS)— which began in 1970 as an Atlanta TV station and now includes four cable networks—the
tanned, outspoken, six-foot, two-inch Turner has often been in the public eye. In 1976, he bought the Atlanta Braves of baseball’s National League. The following year, he skippered his 36-foot sailboat, Courageous, to victory in the prestigious America’s Cup yacht race and has lived up to his nickname “Captain Outrageous.” In 1985, he tried but failed to take over the CBS television network. Then, in 1986, he bought the _ MGM/UA Entertainment Co. g and its library of 6,500 films S for $2 billion, almost bankpa rupting his TBS empire.
Bench mark: But the CNN
0 arm of Turner’s empire ap-
1 pears to be performing strongly. Last year, CNN and its spin-off Headline News, another 24-hour cable service, made a handsome profit of $100 million on revenues of $315 million. CNN director Steven Haworth credits the network’s live coverage of the January, 1986, space shuttle launch— when Challenger exploded, killing all seven people aboard—with establishing the service’s credibility. Declared Haworth: “That was a bench mark. It brought us to the public’s attention.” Other recent events, notably CNN’s around-the-clock coverage of the student rebellion in Beijing, reinforced the network’s reputation as a reliable and immediate source of information. CNN regularly devotes extensive screen time to major breaking stories, returning for updates some 20 or 30 times a day. According to Haworth, new domestic viewing patterns are emerging. “Viewers want to see events as they develop,” he said.
Still, some critics attribute CNN’s success more to format than to content. Ben Bagdikian, a media expert at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Journalism, told Maclean’s'. “CNN has produced a broader, if not deeper, span of TV news simply because it operates around the clock and, to some extent, around the world.” But he says its correspondents lack the expertise of their competitors. Said Bagdikian: “CNN does what it does passingly well. It avoids gross mistakes, but it ^ doesn’t have the background and skill of the g networks.”
^ And Turner’s current success has been g hard-won: he spent $295 million on the net§. work before it finally turned a profit in 1985. Now, he faces increased competition ° from an expanding cable industry at home and overseas, where he is tailoring CNN broadcasts into shorter packages for the European market. But he is clearly confident that his broadcasting prospects are strong. Said the pugnacious Turner of his network and cable competitors: “I intend to kick their ass. I don’t play to lose.”
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