Friday 28 January 2011
Brian Viner: A ringside seat at the birth of 24-hour news
On a chilly January morning 25 years ago today, I drove my beaten-up Chevrolet from my digs at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to the downtown offices of Cable News Network. I had been a student intern at CNN for less than two months, and the assignment handed to me by my boss, a Fawllty Towers-loving Anglophile called Gary Rowe, was to liaise with schools across America concerning the impending journey into space by Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old teacher from New Hampshire.
Nasa's "Teacher in Space" project had been designed to kindle public interest in America's space shuttle programme, and the nation's schools responded just as Nasa had hoped, with essays and projects and huge excitement about the lessons McAuliffe was going to broadcast, via closed-circuit television, from space. She had been chosen for the mission from more than 11,000 applicants. Her enthusiasm and charisma, on TV programmes such as Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, made it plain that the right choice had been made.
CNN, meanwhile, was in its infancy. The media mogul, Ted Turner, had started it a few years earlier, reckoning that there might be an appetite for 24-hour rolling news. Yet it had become something of a laughing-stock, derided for the perceived triviality of much of its content as "Chicken Noodle News". When I landed my internship, few of my fellow students at Emory, even those who fancied a career in broadcasting, were notably envious.
At 11.39am on 28 January 1986, that all changed. One minute and 13 seconds after lift-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated, killing all seven people on board. For Americans, it was a collective trauma almost as devastating as the spectacle of the Twin Towers crashing to earth 15 years later, in fact in some ways even more so, given how much time and interest millions of impressionable children had invested in the event. And most of them were watching on CNN, the only channel to offer live coverage of Challenger's lift-off, at a time of day when America's major TV networks, whose executives had led the general trashing of CNN, were showing Sesame Street and re-runs of I Love Lucy. So much for Chicken Noodle News, a jibe that evaporated into that morning's winter air.
It wouldn't be right to say that CNN's stature, and the relevance of rolling news, changed overnight. It didn't take as long as that. It changed between 11.38am and 11.40am. And I was privileged, if that's the word, to have a seat in the auditorium.
My daughter's driving test success is a mixed blessing
From one perilous form of transport to another, my 17-year-old daughter, Eleanor, passed her driving test last week. She took it in Llandrindod Wells, a small Welsh spa town where there is less of a waiting-list for driving-tests than there is in Hereford, geographically the more obvious option.
Coincidentally, Llandrindod Wells was also where I had my vasectomy five years ago, also on the basis that there was less of a waiting list than there was in Hereford. On both occasions, my wife Jane went with, to drive home if necessary, which in my case it certainly was. I think that's where the parallels might run out. At any rate, I don't remember being asked to make a hill start and at no time, thank goodness, was there an emergency stop.
Anyway, Elly was understandably euphoric to be able to throw away the L-plates, though my own pleasure at her success was tempered by the grim teenage casualty rates on rural roads. It doesn't even have to be them driving poorly; on Tuesday afternoon, in light drizzle on the A44, I turned a gentle bend to be confronted by a car racing towards me on my side of the road, in a reckless overtaking manoeuvre. With more than 30 years of driving experience behind me, I had time to apply my brakes, flash my lights and shout an expletive, but of course I tormented myself with the thought that it might have been Elly at the wheel, with four days' driving experience, rather than me.
Still, all I can do is help her become the best driver she can be, and exercise restraint in lending her the car. And I was genuinely thrilled for her when she phoned from Llandrindod with the news.
I shouted a loud "hooray", which caused some consternation outside the toilet I happened to be in at Caffe Nero on Epsom High Street, judging by the looks I got from a pair of women when I emerged. I waved my phone and told them my daughter had just passed her driving test. They smiled, wanly. I wish I'd said that I'd been constipated for a week.
Coming soon to a village hall near you
Tales Of The Country, the stage adaptation of my book about moving from the city to the sticks, which in turn was inspired by my columns of the same name in The Independent, starts a new five-week national tour this evening. This time, however, it is only playing in rural areas, from Somerset to Northumberland, which in a way is a shame, because it was fascinating during last year's tour to find some scenes getting huge laughs in London that got only mild titters in the country, and vice versa.
Whatever, since I had nothing to do with the adaptation, which was by the very talented playwright Nick Warburton, I hope I can get away with saying that it is brilliant, and wonderfully performed by the Pentabus Theatre Company (see www.pentabus.co.uk for details).
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