THE IDEA OF
launching a 24-hour news channel in 1980 was, in most people’s minds,
laughable – particularly one being built on a shoestring budget in
Atlanta. Broadcasters joked about the Chicken Noodle Network but Ted
Turner, founder of CNN, had faith that news should be broadcast around
the world, 24 hours a day. “We’re gonna go on air 1 June and we’re
gonna stay on until the end of the world,” he was reported as
On 1 June 1980, when CNN made its debut, those who
watched said it showed little promise. A reporter, unaware he was on
camera, was apparently seen picking his nose, while a cleaning lady
swept the set in the background. But adhering to Turner’s vision, the
channel was soon delivering scoops and breaking news that people turned
on their televisions to watch in their millions. By the end of 1989 CNN
had 50 million US subscribers and was being broadcast to 100 countries
around the globe.
If people hadn’t stopped laughing at CNN by the
start of the first Gulf War, they did afterwards. The White House was
said to have learnt that bombs were falling on Baghdad from CNN rather
than the Pentagon and a record one billion people watched with them –
the largest audience of a non-sporting event in television history.
was ahead of his time and for the first 10 years CNN had no real
competition in the US or abroad. But countries around the world started
launching their own rolling news channels and in 1996 Murdoch’s Fox
News launched in America.
The channel appealed to an untapped
conservative audience and in January 2002 overtook CNN’s ratings for
the first time. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, we ask
broadcasters about CNN’s place in the growing market it created.
The people who started up CNN changed television news forever.
It’s easy to underestimate quite what a gamble it was for Ted Turner
and quite how well they stuck to it even through tough times. The
systems they set up and the style that they pioneered are still with us
in terms of two-ways and the pacing of 24-hour news. They realised it
was different from bulletins and showed us that in a world of such fast
communication, 24-hour news channels are the only way. I think they had
an enormous influence and I have great admiration for them.
Richard Tait is director of the Centre for Journalism Studies, Cardiff University and former editor-in-chief of ITN
CNN’s first international news came from a broom cupboard in Atlanta
and consisted of nearly entirely ITN material. Success in the early
days was down to their exploitation of other people’s material. I’m not
in any way decrying the achievement – I’m merely noting the odd way it
Under the astute direction of Chris Cramer and Eason Jordan, CNN
International has managed not to be too American. For all the European
and Asian presenters, you know you are watching an American news
channel, but if you see a truly American news channel like Fox, you
know CNN International is not a normal American news channel.
Stewart Purvis is professor of television journalism at City University and former CEO of ITN
CNN weren’t taken seriously until it was clear they were on to
something important. While individual correspondents were very good
over the years, CNN’s effect on other broadcasters wasn’t altogether
benign – imitators sacrificed accuracy for speed. They’ve defined
rooftop journalism with crisply dressed correspondents standing on
roofs not knowing as much about things as they should. They have taken
several wrong turnings in recent years such as the way they covered
9/11 – they were like an animal caught in the White House headlights.
Even though they run very different services internationally, the
European and Middle East programmes they put out are too
Americo-centric for me – you know they know about baseball but you’re
sure they don’t know about cricket.
Martin Bell is former BBC chief foreign correspondent
They really were a force for good in news because 24-hour news was
something that was crying out to happen. I have no patience with people
who bemoan the 24-hour news culture, because in the old days something
would happen at 10am and the first thing you would hear of it would be
on the one o’clock news.
You shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which CNN was dominant 10
or 15 years ago. I was working in radio and if a big event happened we
would literally opt in to CNN.
Roger Mosey is head of television news at the BBC
Like many of my journalist colleagues, I had been complacent and
thought the news was best served up at fixed points of the day in
heavily crafted and refined news broadcasts. Oh, how we all laughed at
Ted Turner’s expense, even when events like the Challenger space
shuttle explosion in 1986 or the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 forced
television networks to go live – usually painfully late and sometimes
hours after coverage had been broadcast around the world by CNN. As CNN
celebrates 25 years of ground-breaking news coverage and technical
innovation, I am proud to be part of its illustrious history.
Chris Cramer is managing director of CNN International
CNN started when it was the only one in a market that has now been
squeezed, and it doesn’t seem to have found a real voice. Fox News is
of course in tune with the political temperature in the US and has
worked to portray itself as separate from the establishment, whereas
CNN looks very much part of the establishment – part of the furniture.
CNN’s founders were fantastic pioneers but you can’t keep pioneering
for 25 years. You settle into a routine but you need to keep
Certainly the version of CNN we get in Europe appears to be more routine, to have less energy.
Nick Pollard is head of Sky News
1 June 1980 CNN goes on air.
September 1985 CNN International launches, along with 24-hour live transmission to Europe.
January 1986 CNN is the only network to air live coverage of the space shuttle Challenger explosion.
May-June 1987 CNN is the only network to air live coverage of Iran-Contra hearings.
May 1989 Live coverage of unrest in China and uprising at Tiananmen Square.
January 1991 Live coverage from Baghdad the night the Iraq war begins wins a record worldwide audience of nearly one billion.
August 1991 CNN is the first with news of coup d’Ã©tat in the Soviet Union and airs first live interviews with Russian leaders.
October 1996 Fox News launches.
CNN is the first to broadcast reports of the attacks on the World Trade
Centre. It is also the last reporting team to leave Taliban-held
Afghanistan after 9/11.
January 2002 Fox News beats CNN in total viewers for the first time.
CNN exclusively breaks the news of the Al Qaeda video training library
uncovered in Afghanistan, winning awards and accolades for this scoop.
July 2004 CNN’s Christiane Amanpour is the only international journalist in court for Saddam Hussein’s first public hearing.
January 2005 CNN sends correspondents all over South Asia to cover the tsunami.
April 2005 CNN’s coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul II is its largest ever global live event, with over 100 staff in Rome.