CNN finds itself looking over its shoulder as it celebrates its 20th birthday. The network of record is in a bit of a slump, and rivals MSNBC and Fox News are waging vigorous challenges with fresh approaches to cable news.
By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
I T IS ABOUT 12 MINUTES into "The News with Brian Williams" when an audible moan spreads through MSNBC's Control Room 1. News is breaking.
An MSNBC live feed from Washington, D.C., shows the lawyer for Juan Miguel González, Elián González's father, at a press conference. He's announcing that the father is flying to the United States in the morning in an effort to claim his son.
The sight sends producers scrambling and brings Executive Producer Steve Capus off his stool in the back of the darkened control room in the heart of MSNBC's New Jersey headquarters. He paces in front of the television screens and mutters into his headset to give Brian Williams a heads-up that they may have a problem.
The news that González will fly to Washington, D.C., is not unexpected, so the announcement is a relatively minor development in a major soap opera of a story. But Capus must decide whether MSNBC will break in to air the lawyer's press conference or continue with the network's 9 p.m. newscast and its scheduled package of stories on the latest stock market plunge.
Above Capus' head, a row of television screens tuned to the other networks quickly falls into line. First CNN, then Fox News, then MSNBC's sister network, CNBC, abandon their programming and go live to the press conference. Capus, with a few seconds of hesitation, decides MSNBC will buck the trend.
"They're airing it. They're airing it. They're airing it," says Capus, pointing an accusatory finger at each of the networks. "Why do we have to be the fourth to air it?"
MSNBC sticks with its planned story on the new economy and Williams interviews a dotcom recruiter about luring executives to Silicon Valley. Ten minutes later, the program airs a hastily thrown together but thorough report on the González press conference, with correspondent Campbell Brown telling Williams and MSNBC viewers what happened and what it means.
Capus leaves the control room satisfied--satisfied he made the right call and satisfied these are the moments that are changing the tide in the 24-hour cable news ratings game. "The days [of airing the same story] across the board are over," he says. "That's the old school."
In the relatively new world of competition among 24-hour cable news networks, "old school" is CNN and the model Ted Turner's network set up to cover the world. Be everywhere. Cover everything. Shine during the big stories. Become the news network of record.
But as CNN celebrates its 20th anniversary on June 1, it is not without a look over its shoulder. Rival 24-hour news networks MSNBC and Fox News, both in their fourth year on the air, are putting their own spin on the CNN model and slowly starting to make a dent in the ratings. There are other interlopers. CNBC is cornering the growing financial news audience. BBC World Service is putting up a fight on the international front.
It is all a little unsettling, but not unexpected, for the Atlanta-based institution. "There are a lot of people competing with us very aggressively. While we could do without them, I don't know what took them so long to get here," says longtime CNN executive Eason Jordan, now president of global newsgathering and international networks.
"When CNN started, almost universally [it] was dismissed as a joke," Jordan says. "But it didn't take us long to convince those who were laughing to stop."
C NN IS STILL KING on days when major disasters strike or wars break out. But in between the big stories, like the days when nothing is cooking but minor developments in the Elián saga, MSNBC and Fox are starting to find their niches. After two decades, CNN admits it has not found a way to hang on to viewers on the 75 percent of days when there is no big breaking story.
At any given moment, CNN still has more U.S. viewers than Fox and MSNBC combined. But CNN's overall ratings during the first three months of 2000 were down 30 percent from the same time last year. That is partly because the network had two hot stories, the Clinton/Lewinsky saga and the war in Kosovo, to pump up the numbers in 1999. In primetime, between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., CNN fell 20 percent while Fox and MSNBC both gained viewers.
"We are in this slump at the moment," admits Tom Johnson, CNN's chairman, president and CEO. "For its entire 20-year history, the CNN audience levels have been very cyclical.... When the news environment has been quiet, they go back to watching sports, soap operas."
Those slumps have not mattered much in the past. But with competition from MSNBC, Fox, CNBC and others, there is a new urgency at CNN to find a way to hold on to the audience.
Even a small chink in CNN's armor is cause for celebration in the newsrooms and executive offices at MSNBC and Fox News. Both networks say they were dismissed as pale imitations of CNN when they launched in 1996. They are itching for some respect.
"Some of our critics when we started said, 'What do we need another channel for?' and effectively we agreed. You don't need another CNN, but you could use another news channel," says Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's vice president. "We've competed head to head with them on Kennedy. We competed head-to-head with them on Kosovo [and] on election nights. And they usually beat us soundly on those nights. But with each passing event, they beat us less soundly, and the margin of victory gets less and less."
The problem with being on top for two decades is that CNN has nowhere to go but down, says John Moody, Fox News' vice president-editorial. "I respect what they do. I don't denigrate them," he says. "What they've accomplished in 20 years is nothing short of miraculous, but they're wearing thin."
Executives at all three networks rarely pass up any opportunity, on or off the record, to take a swipe at the competition. CNN dismisses Fox and MSNBC as inconsequential. MSNBC says Fox is more talk radio than news. Fox says if MSNBC adds any more taped soft news programming, it will turn into Lifetime. MSNBC says CNN looks like it is programming for senior citizen centers. And so on.
But each network executive has a bank of television sets sitting next to his desk, usually with all three of the networks playing side-by-side-by-side with the sound off. There is a sense that a battle is just beginning.
"It's a fiercely competitive market today," says CNN's Johnson, "and we are strengthening in every way."
A WALK THROUGH CNN'S HEADQUARTERS in Atlanta shows a network that knows it is solidly on top, but a little surprised it got there. The CNN building is a labyrinth of newsrooms and offices, obviously added on quickly wherever there was room as the network expanded. The desks in the main newsroom are tidy, and some staffers avoid eating at their posts, aware that the omnipresent tour groups ($8 for the basic tour, $25 for the VIP version) are usually peering down from the glass-enclosed catwalk above.
Just off the newsroom, there is a poster-sized photo of the original CNN staff, a raggedy group sitting on the steps of CNN's old building across town. They will tell you Ted Turner's idea of airing news 24 hours a day was brought to life by a few hundred underpaid, overworked journalists winging it as they went along.
"When I started working here [in 1982], I was making $3.25 an hour," says Jordan, who dropped out of Georgia State University to work at CNN. "I was eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for years.... There were days in the beginning when our paychecks depended on how many people went to [the Turner-owned] Atlanta Braves games."
Lou Waters--who broadcast in hour two of CNN's first day and is now the network's longest-serving anchor, along with Bernard Shaw--says there is great nostalgia for the no-frills early days. "In the beginning, the greatest concern was, how are we going to fill 24 hours a day?" says Waters, now co-anchor of "CNN Today." "When you look at it now and realize there were about 300 what I like to call news guerrillas working.... It was like going to summer camp."
Waters says those were the days when the news was the star and CNN was the "Chicken Noodle Network." He would run out of script before the show was over. The people he interviewed couldn't speak English. Camera operators would miss cues. Lights would fall over. Satellites would cut out. Everyone agrees the Persian Gulf War came along at just the right time in 1991 to help the network work out the final bugs and prove there was an audience, even a need, for CNN.
But it has been nearly a decade since the war and what CNN calls its "finest hour." These days, staffers say the feeling at the network, now owned by the Time Warner conglomerate, is more corporate. There is more pressure not to mess up, not to miss stories.
CNN now has more than 4,000 employees and 37 bureaus. It broadcasts in nine languages over the Internet, radio and television. There is Headline News, CNN/Sports Illustrated, CNN International and CNN en Español. CNN reaches more households in Europe than in the United States. No other broadcast news operation, except perhaps the BBC, comes close to CNN's worldwide scope.
There are so many news sets and newsrooms in the CNN building, staffs don't know each other and often cannot find another division's offices. When major news, like a plane crash, breaks, a news desk editor goes to a microphone to announce the details over a public address system, so offices around the building can get on the same page.
Standing in Control B, CNN's futuristic new control room, showing off the new flat-screen, touch-controlled computers, Sid Bedingfield, executive vice president of CNN/U.S., says the domestic competition from MSNBC and Fox News does not factor much into day-to-day life in the newsroom.
"Certainly we keep track of the competition, and we always have," Bedingfield says. "But we try to perform against ourselves. We think we can get in trouble if we constantly measure ourselves against the competition."
For now, CNN has no plans to deviate from its current philosophy or its current lineup of shows. The day still starts with a morning roundup of hard news, just as it did when the network launched 20 years ago. And primetime is still anchored by CNN's top-rated show, "Larry King Live," just as it has been for 15 years. Even if the ratings are slipping a bit, any drastic changes would be unwise, says Johnson. "CNN has become the most recognized brand in TV news," he says.
The last time CNN made a high-profile attempt to change its primetime lineup, it was an unprecedented disaster that shook the network and lumped CNN in among the news organizations contributing to journalism's credibility crisis. The show was "NewsStand," a collaboration with Time magazine, CNN's new sister organization under the Time Warner umbrella. The June 7, 1998, broadcast led with a story, also published in Time, about the U.S. military using nerve gas on American defectors in Laos in 1970.
The "Operation Tailwind" story drew immediate protests from the government, veterans groups and even staffers inside the network. After trying to confirm its accuracy, CNN and Time eventually retracted the story and apologized. Producers April Oliver and Jack Smith were fired. Senior executive producer Pamela Hill resigned and CNN star Peter Arnett, who anchored the report, eventually left the network.
Though it is not discussed much at CNN, the scandal still lingers in the form of several lawsuits from the sources and producers involved in the story. In April, CNN settled a defamation suit brought by retired Gen. John Singlaub, named by one of the former CNN producers as a source for the report. The terms of the out-of-court settlement were not disclosed. Meanwhile, Oliver and CNN started a court-ordered mediation this spring to settle their lawsuits against each other. A revamped version of "NewsStand" continues, broadcasting from a set made to look like a newsstand in the corner of CNN's main newsroom in Atlanta.
S OME 250 MILES NORTH in New Jersey's Meadowlands, CNN is always on in the offices of MSNBC's top brass. On this day, MSNBC's Sorenson glances at the muted screen and shrugs at the gray-haired talking head. CNN is celebrating its 20th anniversary and "acting like it's 80," he says. "Larry King did a whole hour on arthritis last week."
MSNBC aims to beat CNN by looking younger and fresher. It will concede the core news audience of older viewers to CNN and Fox, Sorenson says. MSNBC's goal is to shamelessly go after the key demographic, the 25- to 54-year-olds who are so beloved by advertisers. Everyone in MSNBC's Secaucus newsroom seems to know about the "key demos," and they admit that need to attract young viewers is shaping their definition of news.
"To an 18-year-old, news might be that 'Erin Brockovich' is No. 1 at the box office. News might be that 'N Sync has the hottest album at Tower Records. News might be that there's a cool new Web site that allows you as an Internet consumer to download an MP3 to your hard drive," says Sorenson. "When we're applying our decision-making apparatus to the flow of all the news that's coming across the transom every day, we're thinking of it from a 25- to 54-year-old point of view, and we don't make any bones about that."
When MSNBC, a joint venture of NBC and Microsoft, launched in July 1996, no one, including its own staffers, was quite sure what to expect. The debut was shaky. On its third day on the air, MSNBC scrambled to cover the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over the Atlantic. Anchor Brian Williams was praised for holding the audience as the story unfolded. But, within MSNBC, the day is most remembered for the moment when the frustrated anchor resorted to holding up an atlas on camera to show the flight patterns out of John F. Kennedy Airport because the network could not figure out how to get a graphic up.
Early promises that NBC's big stars, like Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric, would be an integral part of MSNBC have never been fulfilled. Experiments with attracting young viewers with consciously hip shows like a nightly Internet program called "The Site" were abandoned. An obsession with the Clinton/Lewinsky story that lasted long after the public was sick of Monica coverage backfired for the network last year when Fox overtook MSNBC in the primetime ratings.
"The channel, I think, has a different approach now overall," says Capus, executive producer of "The News with Brian Williams." "We found that the model that said live from big story to big story and then when they happen, by God milk it until it's dead, was not a good business model. We made some mistakes along the way--I chalk it up to growing pains--where we perhaps stuck with a story and tried to make it a big deal even when it wasn't worthy of that."
Now, the network is adding more taped programming, like the Matt Lauer-hosted biography show "Headliners and Legends" and the repackaged NBC news highlight show "Special Edition." The network is also experimenting with its daily lineup by adding daytime shows to get away from all headlines all the time.
The added programming means the MSNBC headquarters, tucked between the Panasonic and Gucci warehouses in Secaucus, is busting at the seams, with some staffers working in doublewide trailers in the parking lot. The warehouse is dominated by MSNBC's notoriously flashy set, a cavernous steel and faux-brick newsroom with a rotating anchor desk, giant clock, headline zipper and lighted wall map. Blue lights shine down continually. "Disney World meets NASA," as MSNBC spokeswoman Angela Calman describes it.
Keeping with the pursuit of the key demographic, the 500-member staff is young, and the turnover has been high. "I feel like one of the founding fathers," says Williams, who left NBC's White House beat to become the face of MSNBC. "When I walk around there are a finite number of people who were here in the beginning."
An April news meeting to plan a special with Clinton on gun control is filled with twenty- and thirty- something producers and bookers dressed in khakis. Outside, standing in front of the steel doors that lead to the main newsroom, Ramon Escobar talks about why he left his job as news director at WTVJ-TV in Miami to move north, lured by the vibe at MSNBC.
"The reason I came here is I think MSNBC is sort of the pioneer of the next generation of news," says Escobar, the network's new dayside executive producer. "It's interesting TV we're creating here."
The ratings show MSNBC has made some gains among the 25- to 54-year-olds it covets. There has been a 43 percent increase in the first quarter of 2000, compared with the same time last year. Robin Garfield, MSNBC's vice president of research and 34-year-old ratings guru, says the network is starting to consistently beat out CNN among young viewers for the first time.
"MSNBC has been able to continually reinvent itself with what we find people are watching," Garfield says. "We're embracing other definitions of news. We think we can be like the überchannel."
A CROSS THE HUDSON at Fox News' headquarters at 48th Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, talk of key demographics and überchannels makes John Moody cringe. Moody, Fox's vice president-editorial, says worrying about ratings becomes a problem when it starts influencing news judgment. ###
Fox News was founded in 1996 under the slogan, "We report. You decide." The network is part of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. empire and is run by former political consultant Roger Ailes. It has been fighting the image that it is a right-leaning network since its debut.
Moody calls it a "stale accusation." He adds, "It's based on the stereotype Rupert Murdoch is a conservative and Roger Ailes used to consult with Republican candidates." Whether there is a bias or not, political coverage remains the cornerstone of Fox's programming. The underdog network had been building a strong political audience when the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal hit and helped solidify the ratings, especially for its pundit shows. Still, the middle of Fox's day is "Fox News Live," a six-hour chunk of straight hard news reporting. But its evenings and weekends are full of talking heads, including "The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity & Colmes," "The Edge with Paula Zahn" and "The Beltway Boys."
Executives dismiss the persistent charge Fox is more like talk radio than a true 24-hour breaking news network. On this day, reporters are providing live coverage of a minor tornado in California. But the definition of news is also changing at Fox. There is no feeling that a cable news network should feel obligated to try to cover the world like CNN. Fox will not be pouring money into international news to send crews over to North Korea or Pakistan anytime soon.
"There's less concern with world news," Moody says. "We live in a celebrity culture. That means anyone from Tommy Lee Jones to Bill Gates is news. The driving instinct is, 'Is it interesting?' " Fox's primetime shows seem to be building an audience, though they still fall behind CNN's stalwart "Larry King Live" and CNBC's evening lineup anchored by "Hardball with Chris Matthews" and "Rivera Live." But Fox is eager to point out it has accomplished a lot, considering it has fewer than 1,000 employees and access to far fewer television screens than the competition.
For while there's competition among the cable news networks, the playing field is not even yet. After four years on the air, MSNBC and Fox are still slowly being added to cable systems around the country. CNN reaches 77.8 million homes, while MSNBC is in 54.6 million and Fox is in 47.4 million and growing, according to April estimates. The added exposure means CNN is no longer the only 24-hour news network making money. MSNBC recently pulled itself out of the red, and Fox News expects to break even this year and start turning a profit in the fourth quarter, according to a spokesman.
Each network says being in the black means added resources to expand and expand until the cable news market is saturated. If CNN is the model, the growth seems to have no limit.
"Ted [Turner] would love to have a bureau in every country on the planet. Depending on how you count them, that's close to 200," says CNN's Jordan. "We're going to continue to add more people, add more bureaus, add more services. Just grow very, very fast.... If it hits the fan tomorrow, chances are we're there already. So I like our odds."