Cable News Network Debuts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

CNN altered the customary format of television programming by introducing a twenty-four-hour daily schedule of in-depth newscasting and live transmission to a global audience.

Summary of Event

The advent of the Cable News Network (CNN) changed the nature of television production and news programming. The innovative quality of CNN’s programming arose from the application of satellite technology to news production and distribution across national frontiers. CNN revolutionized the strategy and structure of mass communication with the inception of around-the-clock transmission of news to a global audience. CNN’s global scope and live coverage of the news brought visual instancy to international events and reconfigured the contextual perception of international relations. Cable News Network Television;CNN Cable television;CNN Turner Broadcasting System;CNN [kw]Cable News Network Debuts (June 1, 1980) [kw]News Network Debuts, Cable (June 1, 1980) [kw]Network Debuts, Cable News (June 1, 1980) Cable News Network Television;CNN Cable television;CNN Turner Broadcasting System;CNN [g]North America;June 1, 1980: Cable News Network Debuts[04200] [g]United States;June 1, 1980: Cable News Network Debuts[04200] [c]Radio and television;June 1, 1980: Cable News Network Debuts[04200] Turner, Ted Kerkorian, Kirk

The history of CNN is inseparable from the entrepreneurial genius of Ted Turner, the builder of the organization. Turner broke into the leadership ranks of the competitive mass communication industry, and CNN owes its success to his objective definitions and uncompromising self-confidence. The history of CNN is an account of the entrepreneurial restlessness of its founder and the eventual transformation of a fledgling family venture into a transnational corporate outfit.

After the death of his father, Turner inherited the Turner Advertising Company, which specialized in billboards. Turner, through some ingenious reordering of rights and liabilities, extricated the billboard enterprise, conservatively valued at more than $1 million, from contractual problems, thus retaining control of it. He proceeded to expand the company through the acquisition of other billboard companies.

Turner’s interest in mass communication went beyond outdoor advertising. By 1969, he was ready to diversify his holdings, which included a number of radio stations he had acquired as part of a strategic marketing approach. He had placed the billboard firm in stable and profitable order and seemed resolved to apply his skills and profits to a higher level of enterprise. He entered into negotiations with Rice Broadcasting, the proprietors of WTSG-Channel 17, a small ultrahigh frequency (UHF) television broadcaster based in Atlanta, Georgia. Turner bought Channel 17 for $3 million. Its weak transmission signal and a number of regulatory constraints contributed to $689,000 in operational losses in Turner’s first year of ownership.

Despite a string of losses in the new venture, Turner did not slip into bankruptcy. He had successfully transformed the billboard company from a family-based unit into the organizational basis of a public company, the Turner Broadcasting System. That company remained profitable and churned out financial support for Turner’s television efforts, which included a subsequent acquisition in North Carolina, Charlotte’s Channel 36. By 1973, Turner had combined business strategy, hard work, and a dash of luck to push up his Atlanta station’s ratings. Channel 17, now called WTBS, began running comedies, wrestling, sports, and films. Turner’s billboards advertised the station and proudly publicized upcoming broadcasts of Atlanta Braves baseball games on Channel 17.

Wrestling was well received and boosted Channel 17’s share of the viewing audience. The viewership further expanded after Turner secured a five-year right, for $2.5 million, to screen Atlanta Braves baseball games. Channel 17 also took over from the local WSB-TV, then an affiliate of the National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company (NBC), the carriage of some NBC network programs. The expansion in programming increased the audience and visibility of Channel 17.

The mid-1970’s saw pivotal changes for Turner Broadcasting. The deregulation of cable access by the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission (FCC) enabled private broadcasters such as WTBS and John Kluge’s Metromedia to explore opportunities in satellite technology. Satellites, artificial;telecommunications Turner Broadcasting, following in the steps of Home Box Office Home Box Office (HBO), took advantage of a satellite facility, Satcom 1, previously considered for telephonic application by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), to transmit signals to Earth receivers. In 1976, Turner’s WTBS Channel 17, using a national cable format, transmitted to receivers in almost every state.

WTBS signals went via satellite to cable receivers nationwide. The unorthodox venture into national cable networking proved successful and potentially expandable. At the same time, Turner further diversified his holdings to expand the input sources for WTBS programming. The expansion in program sources was necessary to sustain a twenty-four-hour daily output. Turner bought the Atlanta Braves baseball and Atlanta Hawks basketball teams in 1976 and acquired rights to show Atlanta Flames hockey games on the WTBS network. WTBS aired a variety of news and entertainment shows but gave precedence to the latter. News broadcasting, however, would turn out to be the structural hinge and competitive strategy of the company in the 1980’s and beyond.

Ted Turner.

(© George Bennett)

On June 1, 1980, four years after inaugurating its national cable programming, the Turner Broadcasting System launched the Cable News Network (CNN), the first around-the-clock cable news service. Its initial audience consisted of 1.7 million U.S. homes. That year, CNN recorded $7 million in revenue and $16 million in operating losses. Even after five consecutive years of losses, Turner did not abandon his vision. The founder of CNN had major plans to extend the daylong format of broadcasting in a new direction. At midnight on December 1, 1981, he launched CNN2, which offered a condensed edition of the news in thirty-minute slots and updates. CNN2 was renamed CNN Headline News in August, 1983, having absorbed its only competitor, the Satellite News Channel. The 1980’s, a decade of consolidation and expansion at CNN, took the network on a prodigious path of innovative growth, with profound effects on global news production, distribution, and consumption.


The founding of CNN brought innovation to the structure and strategy of competition in the mass communication industry, particularly in cable programming. CNN’s daily offerings around the clock revolutionized the scope and content of news production. Television viewers with cable access no longer had to wait for prime-time broadcasts for news delivery. The network’s live coverage and in-depth analysis of events introduced a new dimension to news distribution and consumption, offering free and instant flow of information across national boundaries by satellite.

Turner’s internationalist outlook underscored the orientation and performance of CNN. CNN won the right in April, 1982, to be on a footing with the major network organizations in White House press pooling. It initiated the first live television broadcast since 1958 from Cuba to the United States. International Hour, International Hour (television program)> a documentary-style program covering events in more than a hundred nations, debuted on CNN in March, 1984. In April, CNN received the George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award, the first of many awards for program quality and excellence. In September, 1985, CNN International was launched as a twenty-four-hour global news service. Its signal initially went to Europe, then by 1989 to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East via Soviet satellite.

CNN’s rapid development finally paid off in profits. Five years of operating losses, partly the result of reinvested returns, ended in 1985, when the network saw $123 million in total revenue and $13 million in profit. The turnaround was remarkable, given an operating loss of $20 million for the preceding year. By 1985, the network had unquestionably established a respectable presence in a cutthroat media market. CNN offered a national audience a live glimpse of the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986. The network’s camera was present in North Africa for instantaneous coverage of U.S. aerial bombardment of Libya in April, 1986. CNN received the Overseas Press Club Award for that coverage. The Turner Broadcasting System acquired a vast film library in 1986 through a deal with Kirk Kerkorian.

CNN’s approach to news marketing and consumption was path-breaking. Aside from enhancing the political consciousness of the public by broadcasting world events, CNN positioned viewers in a make-believe situation of participant-observer. Viewers watched live events unfolding across the globe. For example, for two months in 1987, the public watched the Iran-Contra investigation in Congress. Two years later, the world watched as Chinese students and activists confronted government forces in Tiananmen Square. Beginning in 1987, the CNN World Report collected and collated, without censorship, news reports from different parts of the world. In May, 1988, Noticiero Telemundo-CNN was launched as a Spanish-language news service for viewers in the United States and Latin America.

The increasing sophistication and coverage of the network were obvious. In 1988, CNN received a second George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award for its analytic focus on the 1987 stock market crash. In 1991, CNN and CNN Headline News together claimed 34.5 percent of the national news audience, by households, compared with 23.8 percent for the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC), 21.0 percent for the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and 20.0 percent for NBC. In the 1990’s, however, the success of CNN spawned other twenty-four-hour networks, including the Fox News Channel Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Of these new competitors, Fox News would emerge as CNN’s major competitor, offering a more centrist and center-right perspective to the growing cable and satellite television-consuming markets.

The string of awards conferred on CNN since 1984 reflects the quantitative and qualitative content of the medium’s output as well as the industry’s recognition of the network’s distinctive influence on mass communication. The recognitions accorded to CNN include the Golden Cable ACE, Du Pont Silver Baton, Clarion, Silver Gavel, National Headliner, Edward R. Murrow, and the New York International Television and Film Festival awards. In 1991, Time magazine recognized CNN’s founder, Ted Turner, as its “Man of the Year.” An ACE award in 1992 recognized CNN’s distinctive live coverage of the Persian Gulf War of 1991.

By 1992, the network had accumulated five George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Awards. Critics of television programming and production have suggested that the effectiveness and popularity of CNN arise from the network’s capacity to move far beyond the parochial limits of soap operas and situation comedies into the more realistic realms of humanity and social conditions. Supporters point to Turner’s sponsorship of the Goodwill Games in Moscow as well as the commitment of the Turner Broadcasting System to the causes of global peace, conservation, nuclear order, public education, and impartial reporting.

The Turner Broadcasting System and its subsidiaries responded to a variety of interests. At selected airport terminals and supermarkets, travelers and shoppers could watch the Airport and Checkout channels aired by the Turner Private Networks. For the business community, CNN provided Business Day, Business Morning, Moneyline, and Your Money. CNN International aired Business Asia, Business News, and World Business Today. Sports fans got daily reports. Newsroom served as a classroom teaching aid. CNN Radio offered both network and closed-circuit services to domestic and international radio listeners. CNN’s Larry King Live provided a serious yet casual talk show, and Special Report offered investigative journalism.

Ted Turner demonstrated the relevance of satellite technology to mass communication. He successfully combined broadcast and nonbroadcast services for domestic and international consumption. His experiments in news broadcasting proved the voracious appetite of the American public for up-to-the-minute coverage of events worldwide. Cable News Network Television;CNN Cable television;CNN Turner Broadcasting System;CNN

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brenner, Daniel L., Monroe E. Price, and Michael Meyerson. Cable Television and Other Nonbroadcast Video: Law and Policy. New York: Clark Boardman, 1986. Presents the regulatory and deregulatory framework of cable television. Includes a comprehensive overview of the Cable Communication Policy Act of 1984, FCC rulings, and judicial decisions. Of technical value to researchers as well as general readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Denisoff, R. Serge. “Ted Turner’s Crusade: Economics Versus Morals.” Journal of Popular Culture 21 (Summer, 1987): 27-42. An interesting discussion of programming constraints and choices in television. Describes a balance between financial competitiveness and philosophical imperatives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Media Institute. CNN Versus the Networks: Is More News Better News? A Content Analysis of the Cable News Network and the Three Broadcast Networks. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1983. Examines the news content and competitive context of television news programming.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schonfeld, Reese. Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Vindictive memoir, written by a cofounder of CNN. The author maintains that CNN and its around-the-clock news programming were his own creations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherman, Stratford P. “Ted Turner: Back from the Brink.” Fortune, July 7, 1986, 24-31. Presents a profile of the man and the institutions he built. Portrays Turner as cocky, shrewd, and “wildly unorthodox.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Perry M. How CNN Fought the War: A View from the Inside. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991. Discusses television broadcasting, both foreign and domestic, at CNN. The network’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War receives particular attention. General discussion of the competition for news in television and in the press.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Volkmer, Ingrid. News in the Global Sphere: A Study of CNN and Its Impact on Global Communications. Luton, England: University of Luton Press, 1999. Analyzes current global media developments based on CNN’s World Report programming.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whittemore, Hank. CNN: The Inside Story. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Examines the pattern and scope of CNN’s television broadcasting, including insightful glimpses at the competitive strategy and organizational structure of the network. Not without a few unfounded generalizations.

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Categories: History