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)

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