CNN has a rival in the global news war: the TV arm of the BBC's World Service. To meet the threat it has ditched its Rambo image and unleashed a new weapon - the man from Auntie.
Monday 10 March 1997
CNN is making a determined effort to shed its gung-ho, Rambo reputation and present a more civilized and sophisticated image. It has even lured an Englishman over to its crazy news factory in Georgia, to make it less American.
Chris Cramer has stripped out "self-congratulatory stuff" about CNN's Gulf war coverage. "That happened six years ago, and our audience don't want perpetually to be reminded of it in our promos," he says.
Cramer, 49, who comes from Portsmouth, was previously head of news-gathering at the BBC, which basically means he told the likes of Kate Adie where to go. He is now vice-president and managing editor of CNNI, the international stablemate of Turner's US cable news channel.
In this new role, Cramer finds himself pitted in direct competititon with many of his former colleagues in what CNN's president, chairman and chief executive, Tom Johnson dramatically describes as "global news wars". BBC World, the sound and vision version of the BBC World Service, is aiming to cash in on its reputation for journalistic integrity and impartiality to become a brand leader in news and current affairs across the globe.
"BBC World is the fastest-growing news channel and we are snapping at the heels of CNN," declares Hugh Williams, director of channels with BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the corporation.
Cramer acknowledges that his old employer is moving up in the world, but he denies feeling threatened. "I never underestimate Auntie, having worked for her for quarter of a century," he says. "Of course the BBC is a competitor. But they're still staring at our backside and I'd like it to stay that way."
CNNI is a major element in CNN, which grossed $160m (pounds 100m) last year and returned a $70m profit. "We're not prepared to sit around and see a decline in our revenues," Cramer adds. "My job is to make sure that we maintain our market lead."
To do this, Cramer is spearheading a "regionalisation" stratgey. Basically, CNN is seeking to catch up with the big US news magazines Time and Newsweek by offering its audience outside America less American-oriented content. The bulk of its output will continue to emanate from the CNN Center in Atlanta, but the aim is to make it more international. The presenters are under strict orders to avoid what Cramer calls "silly American colloquialisms which do damage". Viewers in Europe, Asia and Latin America are to receive more news and features tailored for their tastes. The European regional feeds will be handled by CNN's London bureau.
Situated off Charlotte Street, not far from BBC Broadcasting House, this branch office is being refurbished as part of a $6m investment which will also entail the hiring of 40 more journalists, in London, Hong Kong and Atlanta. As well as giving CNNI's output a more localised feel, the recruits will be charged with ensuring that CNN has something to offer on slow news days.
"Of course we never want to lose our capacity to cover big breaking stories," Cramer says. "But we have to give people more reasons to watch us when there isn't a hostage crisis in Peru or whatever."
CNN's aim is to generate what Cramer calls "appointment viewing" during quiet news periods. To that end it is devising an arts programme for its European audience, which will be produced by a British-based independent.
Over in west London, BBC World's bosses see all this as a flattering effort to emulate their more varied and in-depth output. As well as drawing upon the BBC's established network of 250 foreign correspondents, it also gives an international airing to flagship factual programmes such as Panorama, Top Gear and Horizon.
"We're certainly not just serving up what I would call `newzak', an endless repetition of bare facts with no analysis," says Bob Wheaton, BBC World's commissioning editor, with that air of superiority which only Brits can so effortlessly summon.
When BBC World Service Television was launched in 1991, great effort was made to ensure that it emulated its radio forerunner with a thoughful, analytical and truly international approach. "We're not pretending we're broadcasting from outer space," Wheaton says. "It's clear we're coming from London. But we're not peddling a British perspective."
Wheaton and his collagues are cock-a-hoop about the fact that their channel is now in 29 million cable homes across the continent. It is proving particularly popular in Germany and the Benelux countries. But BBC World has to make the most of those advances in terms of advertising revenue (it carries commercials, unlike the domestic BBC channels). And, although it has recently managed to get back into China via satellite (having been unceremoniously ditched by Rupert Murdoch), it has had difficulty in breaking into the US market. Negotiating cable carriage across the Atlantic has proved more difficult than expected, although BBC World hopes to strike up a distribution deal with Discovery Communications and its cable backer, TCI.
Wheaton says he is always coming across Americans in London who would love to be able to access the BBC back home. Surely their reason for wanting to watch BBC World cannot be the same as that cited by 75 per cent of the service's existing viewers in a recent survey - a desire to improve their English?
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