In mid-May last year, as they were preparing to crush a student uprising centred in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China’s Communist rulers abruptly halted almost all Western television coverage of the revolt. But the government still allowed a few images to trickle out of the country on Atlanta-based Cable News Network. CNN was able to transmit single-frame video images and audio commentary by telephone up to and beyond June 4, when the army cleared the square and crushed the revolt with tanks and bullets. Later, CNN executives concluded that China’s leaders had deliberately used the network to inform the rest of the world that the Chinese authorities were in charge—and were firmly restoring order.
As CNN celebrates the 10th anniversary of its first telecast this month, the news organization’s role in broadcasting the Tiananmen Square massacre to the world stands out as one of many landmarks in a tumultuous decade. CNN was launched on a shoestring by Atlanta billionaire Robert Edward (Ted) Turner III (page 54). And now, the world’s first 24-hour news network has emerged as an important factor in international affairs. CNN reaches 91 countries, including Canada, and during periods of crisis or upheaval it is frequently a primary source of information for world leaders, military officials and even intelligence agencies. As well, political figures frequently use CNN to reach a worldwide audience instantaneously. Said Mor ley Safer, a correspondent with CBS’s 60Minutes:“CNN is absolutely relied upon all over the world. It has become a major force worldwide.”
The organization that employees at the established networks once referred to as “Chicken Noodle News” has achieved credibility and prominence primarily through its highly dependable around-the-clock telecasting and live coverage of news events throughout the world.
Most networks record events on videotape and broadcast the information later. But CNN has often carried hours of continuous live coverage as events, including the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger in 1986, unfold.
During the upheavals in East-
ern Europe last fall, CNN broadcast live from the Berlin Wall, from Wenceslas Square in the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague, from the Hungarian capital of Budapest and from Bucharest in Romania. Because of the network’s extensive and detailed coverage, such world leaders as U.S. President George Bush, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Cuban leader Fidel Castro are known to receive CNN in their offices.
Occasionally, political leaders know only as much about a major breaking event as they have seen on the news network. CNN executive vice-president Ed Turner (no relation to the network’s founder) said that reporters besieged a group of senators and congressmen after a White House briefing on the collapse of the East German government last fall. But neither the senators nor the congressmen had much to offer. Said Turner: “They said that they were being briefed on what was being seen on CNN.”
Besides being a vital source of up-to-theminute information, CNN has also been used by governments and political leaders who want to deliver messages worldwide almost instantaneously. Steven Haworth, the network’s director of public relations, said that, during the U.S. invasion of Panama last December, which led to the downfall of dictator Manuel Noriega, the Soviet foreign ministry called
the network with a statement condemning the action before contacting the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
At times, the network becomes an influential participant in the events it is covering. Early in 1987, with his government about to collapse, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos used a state-controlled television station to issue pleas for U.S. support. CNN vice-president Turner said that the network broadcast Marcos’s statements in their entirety and without delay. He added that, after each speech, American congressmen who supported Marcos would urge the administration, usually over CNN, to help the embattled dictator.
When CNN went on the air 10 years ago, few TV analysts anticipated that it would become a basic source of information for despots and democrats around the world. Initially, the service was available in only 1.7 million American homes that were connected to cable television systems. It had only 300 employees, most of them located in a two-storey, Georgian-brick building that was once a country club in Atlanta. Said Mark Walton, a senior correspondent and one of CNN’s first Washington-based employees: “We were treated like a small, local TV station. I don’t think any of us
thought of becoming a global network.”
Now, CNN has 1,700 employees and operates news bureaus in nine American cities and in 16 countries. Annual revenues from advertising and fees charged to subscribers exceeded $398 million in 1989, up from $8 million in 1980. The network, along with Turner’s other broadcasting and entertainment companies, is located in the new CNN Centre, a 14-storey complex in downtown Atlanta.
But the most important measure of CNN’s influence is its potential audience. Using satellite transmission and cable delivery systems, the service is now distributed in 90 countries, including 25 in Europe, 10 in Africa, 15 each in Asia and Latin America, 21 in the Caribbean, and Canada. According to Haworth, governments are the major users, and sometimes the only viewers, in such countries as China, Cuba and Nicaragua, which do not have commercial cable systems. Still, almost 55 million American households, six million European and two million Canadian homes receive CNN. As well, the service is available in 970,000 hotel rooms in North America, Europe, Japan and Latin America.
The only country in which audience size is actually measured is the United States. According to ratings issued by Nielsen Media Research for January, an average of 432,000 American households were watching CNN at
any given time during that month, an 85-percent increase over the average audience in 1985. By comparison, ABC reaches an average of 10.2 million households with its evening newscast, CBS reaches 9.6 million households, and NBC reaches 9.3 million households. During prime time, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. daily, an average of 775,000 households were viewing CNN, more than double the network’s primetime audience five years ago. The network attracted its largest average audience for a 24hour period last Oct. 18, when almost 1.3 million households were tuned in at any given moment to watch CNN’s coverage from San Francisco the day after the city was struck by a devastating earthquake.
Network executives say that CNN’s emergence as a global network has been partly due to improvements in satellite technology. As well, there has also been an increase in the number of satellites available to receive and transmit signals. CNN now leases space on five satellites in order to distribute its signals anywhere on the planet. The network will also lease time, when required, on any of the dozens of other communications satellites orbiting the Earth in order to receive material that it broadcasts on its programs. Said Ed Turner: “It’s a wired universe, and it’s irreversible.”
CNN’s news-gathering capabilities have been
further enhanced by the use of “flyaway units” that enable the network to broadcast from remote locations. The units are, in effect, portable TV stations small enough to be stored in 22 suitcase-sized containers. Once assembled, they beam signals directly to a satellite that feeds into the CNN network.
One intriguing issue is whether CNN, by harnessing this new technology, is primarily a reporter or an actor on the world stage. Montrealborn author and broadcaster Robert MacNeil, who is coanchor of the MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHouron the Public Broadcasting System, said that CNN has changed the way many world leaders formulate policy and run their countries. In a speech to a group of television executives in New York City in April, MacNeil noted that, during the Chinese student uprising, the country’s leaders “could watch what the world was seeing from Tiananmen Square second by second and calibrate their plans accordingly.”
As another demonstration of CNN’s growing influence, MacNeil noted that President George Bush now has to exert extra caution when he comments publicly on sensitive international issues because his remarks can be heard and evaluated instantly in world capitals. Added MacNeil: “CNN doesn’t supersede private exchanges or private diplomacy, but it is a powerful tool. It gives the President a global pulpit.”
CNN executives acknowledge that it is flattering to have world leaders watching their programs. But they claim that the network merely observes a changing world, rather than contributing to the change and upheaval. CNN executives do say that they have fundamentally changed the character of television journalism in the United States. Declared CBS’s Safer: “People tune into CNN for the immediacy. It’s like having a wire service in your home.”
Still, some executives at rival networks say that CNN’s impact has been overrated. Paul Friedman, executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, said that CNN is little more than an illustrated wire service, while ABC provides more depth and informed comment. But regardless of any shortcomings it may have, CNN has become a major source of televised information around the world and, by doing that, it has changed the way that many political leaders—and, indeed, millions of other viewers—think and act.
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