CNN: it's more news, folks: The profitable network may be in 'crisis', but will not abandon its mission, says Rupert Cornwell in Atlanta

People used politely to wonder whether Ted Turner was hallucinating when he visualised a global village united by instantaneous television news or, less politely, made jokes about the 'Chicken Noodle Network'. Now, of course, CNN is not only Ted Turner's vindication, but his claim to immortality. What started life in 1980 as a local curiosity has become the most potent single news force on the planet, followed by every national government worthy of the name and available in 140 million households - more than half of them outside the United States.

But suddenly, at least by its own exalted standards, CNN is in trouble. Ratings have declined, competition is growing fiercer by the week and with a schadenfreude born of years of helpless jealousy, the print media is twisting the knife. 'CNN faces identity crisis' proclaimed the New York Times last month, while the New Republic, in- house magazine of America's liberal intelligentsia, ran a cover story entitled 'Dead air: How CNN wrecked television news'.

But crises are relative. Despite a wretched first few months, CNN's operating profits this year are back on course to match 1993's record dollars 212m on income of dollars 599m, a return any other TV news organisation would drool over. Its share of the US audience may be only 1.8 per cent, 355,000 households at any given moment, but these are the affluent, educated viewers that advertisers love most. John Reidy, media analyst at Smith Barney in New York, says: 'Sure, CNN needs some new stuff, but they've got a lot of smart people, and they've got the resources.' And at CNN headquarters those clever souls have read the warning signals.

In some respects CNN is powerless. Even the smartest people cannot turn base metal into gold. Americans still switch to CNN to follow a big breaking story. But this raw material of the network's prosperity has been in short supply. Bosnia has become boring. Somalia, Haiti, even the Rwandan horrors, have been thin gruel compared to the edge-of-the-seat spectaculars like the Gulf war and the abortive Moscow coup, in that annus mirabilis of 1991 when the first Cruise missiles were hurtling into Baghdad live on CNN, and Peter Arnett joined the legends of American broadcasting.

Deprived of the adrenalin of a big breaking story, CNN can look stale: a procession of interchangeable talking heads, in terms of packaging and panache a poor imitation of the big three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS. But less news has not meant less competition. 'This is a nation swamped by news,' says Ed Turner (no relation), CNN's vice-president in charge of newsgathering. Fourteen years ago, CNN was the plucky little novice going in against the network Goliaths. But it must now face the slings of Davids by the dozen: radio talk shows, all-news local TV channels, plus the affiliates of the Big Three who need no longer wait until the main evening news to run big national and international stories.

Since 1980, three national newspapers have emerged. Two C-Span channels provide round-the-clock public affairs coverage, centred on Congress. Public broadcasting is immeasurably better than a decade ago. Sky Television, owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose pocket is as deep as Ted Turner's, lurks around the corner. And now there is the BBC's World Service TV, with a brand name second to none, already up and running in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and due to launch in the US next year. All are jostling for a niche of the news market, more often for a niche of a niche.

So what should CNN do - stick to the same and watch its rivals, aided by ever more accessible technology, catch up? Or should it increase scheduled programming but forfeit flexibility and its trademark readiness to drop everything for breaking news? Thus the talks of an 'identity crisis', fed by the introduction of new programmes like the early afternoon Talk Back Live call-in show with a studio audience. But the strategic decision seems to have been taken: News, News and More News. 'The direction from Ted is clear,' says Eason Jordan, CNN foreign editor. 'We stay a hard news network with hard news programmes.' Thus, too, will CNN retain its unique role as an interactive televisual wire service, where world leaders not only learn the news, but summon CNN's cameras to make it.

And anything less would be a betrayal, insists Ed Turner. Sillinesses there have been, most shaming of them CNN's gung-ho coverage last year of sexual abuse accusations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin from a former seminary student who claimed he had suppressed his memory of the event for 17 years - before launching a dollars 10m lawsuit. The accusations and the lawsuit quickly proved baseless, and were withdrawn, but not before a squalid media circus that put the leader of America's Catholics on the same footing as Gennifer Flowers.

That episode (for which CNN has never apologised) and endless hours devoted to the Bobbitt trial, the Tonya Harding saga and now OJ Simpson, have drawn the inevitable charge of 'tabloidisation'. But no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. The OJ hearings have given CNN's ratings a sorely needed mid-summer fillip, with the promise of a bonanza when the trial proper starts on 26 September.

If life's tough for CNN, it will be far harder for the BBC. For one thing, CNN is staging a pre- emptive strike by launching CNN- International in the US from January. Much less fixated with American news, CNN-I will appeal to the diplomatic and expatriate market the BBC is seeking. World Service TV, strapped for cash, must compete with a media magnate whose net worth is put by Forbes magazine at dollars 2.3bn. And, as Ted Turner showed when he ploughed dollars 250m into a venture that lost money for its first five years, he is not one to fold his hand.

Then there is the fragmented US cable industry and its 11,000 operators, the majority of them systems with no room for new channels. The choice facing the BBC is to go cap-in-hand, or find a powerful ally. Thus the rumoured deal with Cox Enterprises, the 12th largest US media group whose subsidiary Cox Cable has 2 million subscribers. Cox, incidentally, owns Atlanta's main newspaper, the Constitution, one of the few institutions in the city not owned by Ted Turner.

But will that be enough? Outside the US, the BBC's strength in analysis and quality of its scheduled, non-current affairs programming, makes it probably CNN's toughest rival. But, says Peter Vesey, vice- president of CNN-International: 'I don't think there's much of a business for them in America.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower