How CNN went from breaking records to yesterday's news

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Twenty years ago, a billion people watched the channel's coverage of the first Gulf war. Now it's a different story

The place was the Al-Rashid hotel in downtown Baghdad. The year was 1991. As allied forces pounded Saddam Hussein's Iraq on the opening night of the first Gulf War, a worldwide audience of more than a billion people watched as two dashing American reporters, Peter Arnett and Bernard Shaw, rushed to and from the roof of the building with live updates from the heat of the battle.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, exactly 20 years ago this week, didn't just set in train the events which led to Operation Desert Storm. It also kick-started the first war of the rolling news era. Arnett and Shaw's broadcast, for an Atlanta-based organisation called Cable News Network, or CNN for short, was the most watched live event, outside the sporting arena, in the history of mankind.

In the ensuing weeks and months, satellite dish sales soared. The world, which had previously huddled around transistor radios for their real-time headlines, became addicted to real-time TV news. CNN's profits soared, making its mouthy owner Ted Turner disgustingly wealthy. Even "Stormin' " Norman Schwarzkopf admitted to watching it in his desert bunker.

Fast forward two decades, and CNN was making a very different type of news. In June, Larry King announced he had decided to hang up his red braces and quit the nightly talk show he'd been hosting for 25 years. At the age of 76, having clocked up no less than nine marriages, he wanted to put family first and enjoy "more time for my wife and I to get to the kids' little league [baseball] games".

But when he made the announcement, hardly anyone was watching. In his show that night, King failed to mention was one pertinent fact: after years of gentle decline, viewing figures for his 9pm show were falling off a cliff: down thirty six percent in the previous 12 months, to an all-time low of just over 650,000. If he hadn't decided to jump, he may very well have soon been pushed.

In the cut-throat world of television, where a man's worth is written in ratings, King's recent ratings have been little short of a disaster. Yet for bosses at CNN, they follow an ugly pattern: the veteran interviewer is just one member of an entire stable of talent which is failing to pull its commercial weight. Across the board, audiences are deserting the station in droves.

A decade ago, CNN was the heavyweight champion of its field: reliable, prestigious, and pulling more viewers than both its major commercial rivals combined. Today, it still has a blue chip reputation, but audiences seem to have tired of it: according to market research firm Nielsen, the firm is now sitting at stone last place in the same daily three-horse race.

The number of people watching CNN's daytime shows fell from 672,000 to 462,000 last year, meaning it now boasts less than half the 1,146,000 viewers of Fox. In prime-time, it attracts an average of 624,000. MSNBC scores 763,000; Rupert Murdoch's Fox, with its headline-prone band of agenda-driven newscasters, manages more than two million.

At the same time, the channel has lost a raft of established "faces." In 2009 Lou Dobbs left, after 27 years (replacement John King duly lost 40 percent of his audience). Christiane Amanpour, the US equivalent of John Simpson, ended her 26-year stint in March, joining ABC's This Week. Campbell Brown recently canned her highbrow 8pm politics show, saying: "The simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my programme."

To stop the rot, CNN is changing its furniture. The channel has just made a string of high-profile signings who – on paper, at least – will drag its politically-neutral upmarket product closer to the viewer-friendly schlock of its headline-grabbing rivals. New hires include Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former governor of New York, and (or so it is widely rumoured) Piers Morgan, the British tabloid editor turned reality show judge.

But not everyone's singing praises. Reese Schonfeld, a founder of the channel, was asked by the New Yorker what he thought of Spitzer's hiring. "I don't get it," came his reply. "I can't think of any reason to put that show on the air." The same article described Morgan's mooted appointment as: "taking the route of entertainment over news."

You might wonder why people should even care about the alleged dumbing-down of a cable TV company and its multimillionaire stars. But CNN is not a normal TV company. Instead, like a commercial equivalent of the BBC, it is America's most widely recognised news brand, a worldwide product which has exported star-spangled values and come to represent a sort of journalistic gold standard.

This, after all, is the firm which changed the media landscape when it was founded thirty years ago, by essentially inventing 24-hour rolling TV news. By popularising this concept, and taking it overseas with CNN Worldwide, it revolutionised the way in which the public gets information to a degree that has only since been matched by Google.

In the early days, it brought TV viewers live footage of the Challenger disaster, the Balkan wars, and the OJ Simpson car chase. In 1993, its live debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot was watched by 16.3 million people, and stood for more than a decade as the highest-rated domestic show in cable TV history.

Today, CNN remains an outfit which does things properly, employing 4,000 people in 33 countries (a big deal, in a nation whose news agenda is bizarrely inward-looking), and bringing huge corporate muscle, as part of the Time Warner empire, to the business of shining a light on hard to reach places. It was the first broadcaster into Haiti after the earthquake, and remains the place Americans gravitate towards when major events unfold.

Its problem, though, is that big breaking stories come along relatively rarely. At other times, CNN, is forced into a scrappy battle with MSNBC and Fox for a shrinking pie of viewers. Audiences have migrated online, where they are harder to milk for profits. Some even wonder if, in the internet era, expensive, rolling TV news might have had its day.

"When CNN first came out it was the only game in town," says Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It invented the idea of news as a utility. It said that just like when when you turn a faucet and water comes out, you can turn on CNN and news com out. That was a big deal in 1980." Not any more. "On a good night, between the three 24-hour news services, you might get 4 million viewers, out of over 300 million people in this country."

In an effort to draw a regular crowd, CNN's rivals Fox and MSNBC have decided to shoot for loyal followings (on the right, and left wing respectively) by employing highly-partisan anchors. It, by contrast, insists on remaining doggedly centrist, sometimes to the point of absurdity. As the satirist Jon Stewart recently put it, the network would make sure a guest who insisted the Earth is flat would be given equal airtime to someone who argued that it was spherical.

That even-handedness is at odds with a divided political landscape, where spectrum CNN is now squeezed between Fox, with its headline prone cast of right-leaning pundits such as Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and MSNBC, which boasts left-wing equivalents like Rachel Maddow. Unsurprisingly, its provocative rivals steal the headlines.

"CNN is still a destination news channel for live coverage of unfolding events," says Rachel Sklar, an occasional CNN contributor and editor-in-large of the website Mediaite. "If something happens, check CNN. But in prime time people don't want news. They want to watch what people say about news, and that's where they have struggled." Maintaining standards can also make you clunky, particularly in an era where news stories shift instantly. Today, like the BBC, CNN continues to insist that new facts must be double-sourced before being reported. Sometimes, this works to their credit – they did not get egg on their faces by buying the right-wing smear job on Shirley Sherrod, for example – but it also means rivals can often be far quicker with breaking news.

Speak to senior executives at the network (on the record, at least) and they will claim things have never been better. The firm's profits enjoyed double-digit growth in the last year, for the sixth time running. It boasts a growing footprint in places like Africa and the Middle East (where it now has a news hub). Its website is hugely popular. And domestic ratingsare an unreliable yardstick of success for an organisation whose global income comes from both subscribers and advertising.

"Honestly, we still walk around here wearing big smiles on our faces," says Bart Feder, senior Vice President of Programming. "We have the best news brand on the Planet, we are the place good journalists want to go, and when things that matter happen in the world, people will still turn to CNN."

In defence of the somewhat controversial hiring of Spitzer, the former Democratic Governor of New York who pursued a "family values" agenda but then resigned after being caught with prostitutes, Mr Feder is anxious to stress that his co-host will be Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker as a co-host. Their forthcoming new show will not, he therefore says, be an experiment in Fox-style partisanship. "We have never shied away from having opinions on our programmes. But we are not a channel whose shows have an agenda. We don't stack the deck like our competitors. " CNN's target audience is neither left nor right wing: "We are a network for news enthusiasts," Mr Feder says.

CNN's fate may eventually lie in consolidation: rumours have abounded of a possible tie-in with CBS news, pooling resources to provide programming for both a rolling cable news channel, and the network's nightly news show, to provide a mega-organisation which can compete with its myriad online and on-air rivals.

To staff in Atlanta, proudly independent for years, that would, however, be an anathema. "The irony is that thirty years ago we were the ones who revolutionised the news cycle, and the tone of the news cycle," laments one employee. "Now we seem to be the ones falling victim to a different sort of revolution. And no-one is quite sure what to do about it."

CNN: The key figures

Ted Turner

The bullish and ambitious businessman, built a small empire in the growing cable television market after inheriting his father's Georgia-based advertising business at the age of 24. People called him "the Mouth from the South" on account of his supreme self-confidence. Mr Turner remained the proprietor of CNN from its launch in June 1980 until 1996, when his TV networks were acquired by Time Warner, making him one of the world's wealthiest men. He stayed on the company's board until 2006, before retiring to pursue environmental philanthropy and raise herds of bison on the various ranches which make him America's largest private landowner.

Christiane Amanpour

A big hitter of CNN, Christiane Amanpour left the network after nearly three decades spent reporting from war zones and interviewing major world figures. She moved to ABC, saying she had the "utmost respect, love and admiration" for her former employer.

Larry King

The man dubbed "the master of the mic" made his debut for CNN in 1985 and continued his mix of celebrity interviews and political debates for 25 years. He has clocked up more than 40,000 interviews in his career, including every US president since Gerald Ford.

Anderson Cooper

The network's main anchorman who was at the forefront of CNN's coverage of the Haiti earthquake and the BP oil spill. The on-camera anger he displayed at the conditions he saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina helped shame the Bush administration.

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