Not your parents’ news channel

Dec 16, 2002  •  Post A Comment

CNN Headline News did not invent the news wheel, it only compressed it.
The service is quietly celebrating its 20th anniversary this year in much the same manner in which it has existed for the past two decades-beneath the radar of all but its most ardent fans and comfortably in the shadow of its much bigger and more public sibling.
While the battle for cable network news supremacy takes place in a loud and public forum, Headline News ambles along, doing what it does: provide a quick, concise update of news and information. Copious yet succinct is clearly the operative phrase here.
“We are a refuge for all the people who are sated with all the opinion-driven all-news channels,” said veteran Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts of his home for the past 21 years. “Just the facts. We have never deviated from that.”
Looking back on the cable television environment of 1982, it’s hard to imagine how CNN2-the original moniker for Headline News-ever made it onto television, much less survived this long.
Created as a defensive strategy against a competing service, CNN2 was assembled in rush fashion in the summer of 1981, though Ted Turner first broached the concept a year earlier.
“In November of 1980, Ted and I were with our wives at a birthday dinner, and he asked me if I thought we might have a competitor [to CNN] someday, and I said yes,” recalled CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld. Mr. Turner instructed Mr. Schonfeld to put together a plan and a proposed budget for a headline news service.
“He didn’t even look at it. He just stuffed it into a desk drawer,” Mr. Schonfeld said. “Later, when we heard about Satellite News Channel, he pulled the plan out of his desk and said, `Do it.”’
The big story of the day in cable was not the two-year-old, still struggling CNN. Rather it was the imminent launch of Satellite News Channel, the proposed 24-hour service from Westinghouse Broadcasting Corp.’s Group W Satellite Communications and ABC Video Enterprises, two organizations with pockets sufficiently deep to threaten the very existence of both CNN and the entire Turner Broadcasting System.
TBS at the time was on shaky financial footing, and Mr. Turner was looking for every possible way to keep his company afloat. As owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball club, Mr. Turner once persuaded concessionaires at the baseball stadium to prepay concession fees so that he would have enough money to keep his cable empire going. He considered selling his outdoor advertising company, once fielding an offer of $30 million.
“He took that offer to the bank and said, `Somebody just said they would pay $30 million and you only have a $12 million mortgage. Can’t we make that $18 million?”’ Mr. Schonfeld said. “The bank would say OK, and we would have another $6 million to run the business for another two months.”
Down to the wire
As the Jan. 1, 1982, launch date approached, Mr. Turner faced two major hurdles. CNN2 had no studio space and no distribution arrangement in place. A scant three months before the launch Mr. Turner struck a deal with Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. for a temporary lease of a transponder on RCA’s Satcom F-1 satellite.
But CNN2 still needed a launch pad. Mr. Schonfeld and the Turner engineering staff scrambled to locate space in an abandoned Jewish social club on the north side of Atlanta.
“We built the studio on top of an old swimming pool,” Mr. Roberts said of the rush construction job. “At night you could hear crickets chirping. The microphones would pick them up during periods of dead air.”
It was Mr. Roberts who uttered the first words on CNN2/Headline News and anchored the channel’s first two-hour block.
“We taped maybe two hours of programming so that if the satellite went down, we had a backup, even if it meant repeating the same thing over and over again,” he said.
CNN2 was on the air, but its future was far from certain. Cable operators were a tough sell and supporters were hard to find.
“We played upon the fact that Ted and Turner Broadcasting had been there with TBS before anybody else, except HBO, providing a unique piece of programming that was a little bit different, a little wackier than what the broadcast networks were offering,” said Nory LeBrun, who headed affiliate sales and marketing for the then-nascent network.
The CNN sales force leveraged Mr. Turner’s reputation as someone who was “cable before cable was cool.”
“We would tell affiliates that Ted was putting his own fortune on the line, and you need to remember that,” Mr. LeBrun continued.
Bob Wright, then president of Cox Cable Communications, became the first cable executive to give CNN2 full carriage.
“When I arrived in Atlanta, Ted Turner was just about the first person I met,” recalled Mr. Wright, now chairman and CEO of NBC. “He invited me over to his office to share with me the plans for how it was to develop, and I got very excited about it.”
For a while, Cox considered taking a 49 percent ownership stake in CNN and Headline News. The talks never reached fruition, but Mr. Wright and Cox became firm advocates of 24-hour news on cable in general and the CNN product in particular.
“ABC and Westinghouse (Group W) did not embrace the cable operators like Ted did, and that’s why CNN won and ABC-Westinghouse didn’t,” Mr. Wright said.
Mr. Turner positioned CNN2 as being vital to cable’s future and took every opportunity to criticize the “uncable” parentage of Satellite News Channel.
“It is an attempt by the networks to sneak in by the back door of the cable TV market,” he said in a 1982 interview.
Tough times
In 1982, no one was sure that there was room on crowded cable systems for two news channels, much less the three that were anticipated. Moreover, since CNN was charging cable operators as much as 20 cents per subscriber for carriage, Mr. Schonfeld had to walk a fine line so that fee-free CNN2 did not become so indispensable that cable operators would drop CNN in favor of the free service.
“One of my jobs was to make sure that this new service was not too good,” he said. “People were coming up to me asking why it was so boring and I would tell them that it was designed to be boring. I didn’t want people to watch it. I wanted people watching CNN, where the advertising revenue was much greater and where we got a subscription fee.”
In retrospect, the concern over the ballyhooed launch of SNC was overblown. Never able to gain traction with cable operators, and woefully short on advertising revenue, SNC folded after a little over a year following its June 1982 launch. Mr. Turner agreed to buy the channel for $25 million and then put it out of business. Ted Turner had become the king of cable news, and the future of both CNN and the newly renamed Headline News was at last secure. For a while at least.
While Mr. Turner had triumphed over the competition, he had a tougher time taming his financial problems. His news channels were hemorrhaging losses of more than $1 million per month. He negotiated briefly with all three broadcast networks in 1983 on the possibility of a merger. Nothing came of the talks.
“They turned us down,” Mr. Turner said in a 1983 interview in Playboy magazine. “They just said they figured out that I would be the largest shareholder in the company, and that was all they needed to know.”
Still, the timely demise of SNC took a lot of the pressure off of Headline News. Computers and advanced satellite communications soon replaced the electric typewriters and paper-driven TelePrompTers. Headline News continued to gain support from cable operators, even as its financial problems continued.
Mr. Turner briefly considered transforming Headline News into a business and financial channel in 1987 but dropped the idea. That year’s stock market crash catalyzed public interest in business reporting. Headline News beefed up its coverage of financial topics and added a stock ticker during market hours.
In August 1992, Headline News passed the critical 50-million home threshold, putting it among the most widel
y distributed cable networks. The channel grew with little fanfare throughout the 1990s, its most significant publicity coming when it broke the longstanding news wheel format in February 1997 to carry extended coverage of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil trial in Santa Monica, Calif. (CNN was covering President Clinton’s State of the Union address.)
The relative stability ended abruptly in 1998, when the channel announced its first substantial layoffs. New digital production facilities, it was said, would obviate the need for up to 70 staffers. That year saw several familiar faces leave, including anchors Toria Tolley, Bob Losure and Lyn Vaughn. It was around that time that cancer claimed the life of popular anchor Don Harrison.
Over the next three years, Headline News would see substantial management changes as well. Network President Bob Furnad retired in the days following the merger of Time Warner Inc. with America Online in January 2001. His replacement, Teya Ryan, initiated the most sweeping changes Headline News has seen to date.
Big changes
Under Ms. Ryan’s tutelage, Headline News dropped its standard single-anchor format, moving to a team approach similar to that used in many newscasts on local television. The 30-minute news wheel was pared down to 15 minutes as reports got shorter and snappier.
The TV screen took on a new look as graphics, tickers and teases boxed in anchors. Critics lambasted the changes, but viewers liked what they saw. Not only did Headline’s ratings reboundin concert with the switch, its demographics improved mightily as well.
The channel that was originally designed so not too many viewers would watch had been redesigned into an appealing stop along the TV dial.
“What I tried to do was fundamentally lower the demographics of the network. We wanted to bring younger people into the brand, and hopefully they will stay with us as they mature,” Ms. Ryan said.
With an average age of 48 years, the Headline News audience is the youngest among cable’s news channels.
Early this year when Ms. Ryan moved up to become president of CNN’s domestic networks, she turned to CNN en Espanol executive Rolando Santos to shepherd Headline News into the 21stt century. In spite of format shakeups and personnel changes, Mr. Santos says that the mission of Headline News remains constant.
“Our job is to bring our viewers the most important, most relevant information quickly, so they can get on with their lives,” he said.
The new Headline News appears tailor-made for an on-demand world. Mr. Santos conceded that’s part of the network’s long-range plan.
“We are talking about all sorts of things, from wireless to pagers. We’re looking at taking our ticker and streaming it across your computer. The new format was designed with all of these things in mind,” he said.
Headline News has progressed a long way since those early days when the cacophony of crickets pervaded the evening newscasts. It now operates out of a state-of-the art facility at CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. While it has not strayed far from its “Just the facts, ma’am” approach, the recent changes encourage anchors to inject a bit of personality.
“We try to get the mornings started with a kick or a little chuckle,” said Robin Meade, who anchors the morning show. On a recent morning, entertainment reporter Kendis Gibson, apparently weary of numerous reports on the new James Bond film, rolled a graphics clip in which Ms. Meade’s head was superimposed over the body of actress Halle Berry.
“A little ambush on the air from time to time makes for a little fun,” Ms. Meade said.
In the spirit of Mr. Turner, Headline News continues to evolve. Look for changes to its programming blocks early next year. As they say, the news never stops.