“What’s wrong at CNN?” reads a headline on Politico.com (June 26, 2012). Once the dominant cable news network, Ted Turner’s creation has fallen behind its rivals in the Nielsen ratings. Outflanked by the Internet and opinion-driven journalism, CNN’s decline tracks the evolution of the American media over the last quarter-century.
Started by Turner in 1980, CNN gradually grew in importance as the decade progressed. As more and more Americans subscribed to cable, a larger audience began to watch the original 24-hour news network. Most CNN programs aired straight news, though the network also pioneered the shouting matches that dominate cable today, with debate shows like “Crossfire” and “The Capital Gang.”
The 1990-91 Persian Gulf War gave the network its biggest boost into the mainstream. CNN’s reporters stayed in Iraq when the Allied air campaign began, as lead anchor Bernard Shaw and his colleagues reported the start of the conflict from the Al Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. While contemporaries called Vietnam the “living room war,” the Gulf War was the first 24-hour television war, as Americans could watch the entire campaign all day and all night. No longer did viewers have to wait for the anchors at ABC, NBC, and CBS to deliver the news at the dinner hour.
While CNN’s coverage of the war was an impressive journalistic achievement, the network’s coverage of the O.J. Simpson case in 1994-95 boosted its audience in a less edifying manner. From the infamous white Bronco chase in June 1994 to the jury’s controversial not guilty verdict in October 1995, CNN documented every aspect of the case. Though CNBC and the major networks also covered the case, it was CNN that led the way.
Though no one could have anticipated it, the seeds of CNN’s decline were laid at that time. The commercial success of the trial coverage showed that a channel could get an audience to follow one story for an extended time with high ratings. It seems like more than mere coincidence that MSNBC and Fox News debuted a mere year after the trial in 1996. Furthermore, the Internet started to become a staple of homes and offices in the mid-1990s, with more Americans receiving their news online.
In retrospect, CNN’s fall from its perch at the top of cable news came very quickly. Fox appealed to conservatives who had been distrustful of the “mainstream media” since the Nixon Administration’s attacks on liberal press bias during the Vietnam era. Indeed, some Republicans took to calling CNN “Clinton News Network” during the 1990s. By 2002, Fox surpassed CNN as the #1 cable news network.
MSNBC’s climb was more difficult as it struggled to find its identity for its first decade. It may be hard to believe today, but conservatives such as Alan Keyes and (gulp) Michael Savage once hosted programs on the network, as the corporate hierarchy tried to figure out its niche. Led by Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” and Chris Matthews' return to liberalism on “Hardball,” MSNBC redefined itself as a voice for progressives during George W. Bush’s second term. Today, its prime-time ratings often exceed CNN’s, particularly among the all-important younger watchers.
While MSNBC and Fox News might seem completely different in every respect, they are both products of the rise of the Internet. Most news-consuming Americans know the major events of the day by the time they get home and have little need to watch the network evening news or cable for such basic information. Instead, viewers want to see pundits debating the issues of the time in an entertaining way and the newer networks have cornered that market. Ironic given that CNN helped pioneer this format with “Crossfire.” Now it is simply all “Crossfire,” all the time.
Though CNN’s ratings have fallen to their lowest ebb since its Gulf War breakout, the network still garners a huge boost during major news events like the Japanese tsunami or Egyptian revolution. It had the highest audience of any cable network on election night 2008 (“What’s wrong at CNN?”). Nevertheless, CNN has yet to find a way to consistently prosper in the 21st century and is rapidly becoming as irrelevant as the evening news.
Sources: “What’s wrong at CNN,” Politico.com, Dylan Byers, June 26, 2012.