MEMO TO: Ted Turner
FROM: Peter Bart
EVERYONE AND HIS COUSIN are making plans to clone CNN — a notion that has been greeted with considerable disdain, especially from you. The proposed news blitz is more an expression of corporate megalomania than corporate strategy, we are told, mere game-playing on the infopike.
Having been stranded by a monsoon in Singapore last week, I was forced to stare at CNN Intl. for a prolonged period. My conclusion: CNN’s soldiers might actually benefit from a little competition, Ted. The hard fact is that CNN, here and abroad, is becoming a blur of news lite, a hodgepodge of cost-conscious sound bites from which Larry King emerges as a cross between Edward R. Murrow and the Delphic oracle.
To be sure, in moments of international crisis, CNN is instantly transmogrified into a global nerve center, with diplomats as well as ordinary viewers glued to their sets. But in ordinary times your 16-year-old service has become tired, Ted. Little wonder only about 400,000 Americans — and one can only speculate how many people overseas — view it during an average hour.
Prolonged exposure to CNN in Asia provides a major catalyst for narcolepsy. A sound bite from Sri Lanka is inexplicably interrupted by a talking head spouting Cantonese. A snippet from Bosnia is attenuated to permit a junior high school-level discourse on Black History Month, which in turn yields to one of those maddening scrolls of hotels that carry CNN, as if travelers were prepared to shift their plans to accommodate CNN hotels.
All of us understand the value of fiscal austerity, Ted, but on the other hand we’re also told that CNN is a highly profitable operation with an annual cash flow in the neighborhood of $250 million. If you’re making this kind of money, how about putting more of it back into the operation rather than spending it on film studios? Why should prime hours across Asia be handed off to the Asian Wall Street Journal so that viewers are forced to watch each moment-by-moment twitch in the currency market? Do many people out there really care how the franc measures up against the rupee?
I realize bureaus are expensive to maintain, but can’t CNN afford more overseas stringers for whom English is their first language? A CNN reporter from Warsaw the other day seemed like she was doing a parody of a Berlitz dropout, not to mention the fact that her voice was coming from the bottom of a well.
And how about telling us up front which countries of the world are broadcasting CNN on time-delay to permit 11th-hour censorship?
IN VIEW OF ALL THIS, it’s little wonder that the likes of ABC, Fox, CBS, NBC/Microsoft and Dow Jones/ITT are all huddled at the starting gate to enter the all-news derby. Sure, corporate machismo enters into their strategies. No one is naive enough to believe that all these corporate suits have suddenly developed a fanatical dedication to hard news, especially since CNN’s audience is static and ratings for network news have been slowly dwindling.
But what would happen if more diversity was, in fact, suddenly injected into the news business? Would audiences be more responsive if news was presented with more depth and analysis — and if local news consisted of something more than a litany of murder and arson?
Rupert Murdoch, for one, believes the audience for news could potentially double, and he’s mobilized that fierce GOP pit bull Roger Ailes to jumpstart his operation. Rupert, to be sure, won’t be able to tap into ABC’s galaxy of news stars, nor does he have instant access to an operation like NBC’s America’s Talking. Nonetheless, he’s gazing five or 10 years down the infopike, when news may shape up as an on-demand service with viewers summoning up high-speed summaries through cable modems.
At that time, even when you’re stuck in a monsoon in Singapore, you could still order up an intelligible account of developments in Sri Lanka or Bosnia without interference from a Cantonese talking head or a Berlitz reject from Warsaw.
But you could get there first, Ted. For 16 years this was your ballgame, but your players have been bunting instead of trying for a home run. You have allowed your news service to become gray and corporate — two traits that you yourself have steadfastly avoided.
The news business is about to be revolutionized, Ted, so perhaps it’s incumbent on you to take the reins of leadership once again and give Roger Ailes and other newcomers a run for their money.