| Reese Schonfeld
the rise and fall of CNN
Co-founder: Blame Ted for resisting innovation
By Kevin Downey
Reese Schonfeld is an old-time New York news guy who started out working for the news wires and ended up co-founding CNN and Headline News with Ted Turner in 1979. He was president and chief executive officer of CNN until 1982, when Turner decided to run the first 24-hour news networks himself. Schonfeld went on to start News 12, the first 24-hour local news network, and helped create The Food Network, where he served as president and CEO. He recounts his career, the creation of CNN, and its subsequent troubles in his book, ďMe and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN.Ē Schonfeld is still passionate about the news and believes CNN can still be innovative and regain an audience.
Why did you think that a 24-hour cable news network could work? And when did you first realize that CNN would be a success?
Because I came from a wire service background and saw the flow of news
over the wires. I saw that you could do 24-hour news if you picked up
pictures. I never thought there would be a shortage of information with
sports, business, and all those things. Look at a
newspaper and try reading it out loud. It would take hours.
CNNís ratings troubles have been covered in the press for years. But is it possible for news networks to get sizable ratings outside of events like the Gulf War and the O.J. Simpson trial?
People have an insatiable
need to know. Itís a great human characteristic. If you can advance the
news with things that they donít know, theyíll stick with you.
Is CNNís ratings problem simply a matter of too much competition? It seems that the concept of CNN sparked so much competition with other cable news networks and possibly better network news that they could not have sustained their audience.
CNN brought in all these
competitors. Nickelodeon has the same problem. It has all sorts
of competition with Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Fox Family and a few
others. But in the same period that CNN lost 60-70 percent of its ratings,
Nickelodeon doubled theirs. They evolved but CNN has stuck with what theyíve
been doing since the beginning.
Can CNN revive itself under AOL Time Warner and seemingly without the vision of Ted Turner? Can it be innovative enough to bring back viewers?
CNN has not been
innovative for the past 18 years. One of their problems is, when the news
networks began hiring from CNN, CNN hired from the networks.
How significant was the loss of Lou Dobbs from CNNfn and Moneyline in 1999 and how much of a loss is Stuart Varney, who recently left?
The loss of Dobbs clearly
had an impact. They lost about one-third of their audience. He says
that was worth about $50 million a year and heís probably right. The
loss from a viewer point of view was very bad and it showed the public the
infighting that was going on at CNN. Thatís not to say that Dobbs was
easy to live with. But he knew what he was doing.
What do the news networks, in general, need to do to be relevant? How well are they covering the problems on Wall Street, and does that represent a story that can help them gain ground?
I think the stock market
slump is a great story where there can be a lot of innovative reporting.
If you have good business reporters who know this business, you can make a
name for yourself right now that can carry you for years.
The internet is pretty good for covering breaking news but do you think it will ever be viable as a news medium that holds viewers for a long period of time?
Not now, but in the end
it will be where you can get viewers for 30 minutes when they can get full
streaming video on their computers. Thereís no reason they cannot get
viewers watching the news for a half hour.
-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.
© 2001 Media Life