As Operation Desert Storm erupted last week, there was only one unequivocal victor in the first days of war: the Cable News Network.

The startling audio reports transmitted by anchor Bernard Shaw and correspondents John Holliman and Peter Arnett as the first bombs fell on Baghdad seized the world’s attention. CNN suddenly was everywhere on the television dial.

After another year of declining audience share, the broadcast nets were looking to prove their indispensability in an international crisis. Instead, they found themselves upstaged by a 10-year-old cable news service, further shifting the balance of power in cable’s direction.

On the night of the initial bombardment of Baghdad, as television viewing reached record-high levels, CNN achieved the largest rating ever won by a basic cable network in primetime. Inside its U.S. ratings universe of 56.7 million households, CNN scored a 19.1/25.3, representing 10,834,000 homes. That figure does not include the additional 225 affiliates and indies that tuned into CNN coverage either continuously or intermittently.

On an average night, CNN garners less than one rating point in primetime.

* CNN’s coverage quickly pervaded indies around the country: Four Los Angeles stations – KTTV, KTLA, KCAL and KCOP – and three in New York – WNYW, WWOR and WPIX – carried large portions of CNN’s coverage during the first 24 hours of the war.

* In a blatant defection from its own news division, CBS affiliate WAGA Atlanta even periodically cut away from its own network’s coverage in favor of CNN. “As far as we know, this has never happened before,” said CBS prexy of affiliate relations Anthony Malara. “Obviously, we’re concerned, and we want to have discussions with them.”

Canvassing their client stations, tv consulting group Audience Research & Development discovered a number of network affiliates flip-flopping between CNN and their network’s fare. Both the NBC affil, KGW, and the CBS affil, KOIN, in Portland, Ore., carried substantial chunks of CNN’s coverage, as did the Detroit NBC affil WDIV, according to AR&D consultant Doug Clemensen. KHOU Houston and WUSA Washington, D. C, along with ABC affil WFAA Dallas also made heavy use of CNN reports, per Clemensen.

This has been a threshold event for CNN where it has gained huge distribution on over-the-air television, says Clemensen.

* CNN got the promo of a lifetime when Defense Secretary Richard Cheney told a Pentagon press conference three hours after the attack had begun: “The best reporting I’ve heard about what has transpired in Baghdad was on CNN.” Gen. Colin Powell and President Turgut Ozal of Turkey also said they were getting much of their information from CNN.

* The financial markets already have taken notice of CNN’s performance. Parent company Turner Broadcasting System’s stock leaped 35.2%, from 11.375 to a close of 15.375 Jan. 18.

“From an investment point of view, CNN’s extraordinary job of covering the gulf crisis serves as a defacto recognition that cable tv has come of age,” says entertainment analyst Christopher Dixon. “Investors’ fears over the longterm strength of cable should begin to dissipate.”

The morning after hostilities began, CNN exec v.p. Ed Turner agreed that the gulf war may become a defining event for his news organization. “Why the other networks weren’t more successful [in transmitting from Baghdad] I don’t know,” said Turner. “But I know there’s no mystery to [CNN’s success]. Since September we have just been more persistent in nagging the Iraqi government to let us put that piece of gear in.”

That “piece of gear” was a four-wire core circuit telephone hookup that enabled CNN reporters in Baghdad to continue broadcasting their hair-raising audio reports for many hours after transmissions from the three other network reporters in Baghdad had been disconnected.

CNN finally lost its ability to transmit from Baghdad without Iraqi censorship at midday Jan. 17. A few hours later, CBS News spokesman Tom Goodman promised that “now we can compete on an even footing.”

Some news analysts alleged that the increasing cost-consciousness of the major network news divisions inhibited them from investing funds necessary for a telephone hookup comparable to CNN’s. Network execs insisted that they simply were not granted permission to do so by Iraqi authorities.

Financial ties

The special treatment accorded CNN by the Iraqi government during the first hours of the conflict may have been due to the presence of anchor Bernard Shaw in Baghdad. CNN’s wide international audience, which reportedly includes Saddam Hussein, gives it additional clout in the Middle East.

“There’s something to our international signal, of course,” acknowledged Turner. “On the other hand, the U.S. networks that broadcast only in North America have huge audiences, so it’s not as if they ought to be discounted.”

With almost 40% greater access to households, the ratings of the major broadcast networks were naturally even higher than those of CNN. ABC led with a 19.8/27 in the Jan. 17 overnight primetime figures, followed by NBC with 16.3/22, and CBS with 11.9/16.

ABC managed to receive sporadic reports from its reporter Gary Shepherd in Baghdad, while NBC’s Tom Arnett was last heard from in the first hour of the attack, and CBS’ Alan Pizzey got on the air for only about 10 minutes at 12:30 a.m. EST on the morning of the attack, having found his way from the Al Rashid Hotel to a phone at the U.S. Embassy.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who found himself resorting to an on-air interview with Shaw after losing contact with NBC reporter Aspell, paid tribute to the “enterprise and daring” of his CNN competitors, saying: “CNN used to be called the little network that could. It’s no longer the little network.”

A CBS source said that “disappointment would be an understatement to describe how we felt about not being able to get Alan Pizzey” on the air.

As the war escalated with Iraq’s missile attack on Israel, CNN lost the dramatic element of exclusivity in its reporting. NBC, ABC and CNN all broadcast terrifying live images of correspondents in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv donning gas masks against the threat of chemical weapons. CBS was the first network to transmit film images of the wreckage in Tel Aviv.

In the initial tumult of Iraq’s attack on Israel, there was some confused reporting. Brokaw told viewers they were witnessing “the first chemical attack on a city in history” and CBS reported that Israeli radio announced a retaliatory strike already had been launched.

Later on Thursday, ABC and CBS became the first networks to broadcast films of the initial attack on Baghdad shot by an ITN cameraman.

Govt. dispute

As morning dawned in Baghdad after the first U.S. bombardment, CNN producer Robert Weiner witnessed a dispute in the Al Rashid lobby between officials from the Iraqi Information Ministry and the Post Office, Telephone & Telegraph Ministry (controlled by the military) over CNN’s permission to continue broadcasting. “The military wanted us off, the Ministry of Information wanted us on,” said Turner.

The previous evening, CNN correspondent Arnett had argued Iraqi military officers out of shutting CNN down, as Shaw and Holliman hid under a bed and a table to avoid being herded down to underground shelters along with other journalists at the hotel.

On Jan. 17, ABC News spokeswoman Sherrie Rollins commented: “Even if being in the right place at the right time is a matter of luck, what really matters is what you do with it, and CNN clearly did an outstanding job.” Another exec belittled CNN’s accomplishment, saying that the operation had “longstanding financial ties with the Iraqis.”

Pentagon guidelines

All reporters in the gulf are operating not only under Iraqi censors, but also Pentagon guidelines that carefully control their access to military operations. Those guidelines were modified slightly in favor of the press a day before the invasion, imposing “security review” on reports only in “limited circumstances.”

ABC Washington bureau chief George Watson acknowledged that reporters in the region are highly dependent on the cooperation of the military. “We need them to get us where the action is, protect us once we’re there, then get us out of there.”

As of the morning of Jan. 18, correspondents from CBS, ABC, BBC, ITN and French television had left Iraq by caravan into Jordan. At press time, CNN’s Shaw and Holliman were out of Iraq; Arnett remained behind.

J. Max Robins, Paul Noglows and Richard Huff contributed to this report.