Present at the creation




' 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.'

 

'If I were running CNN, Iíd have a contract with Bill Clinton right now and replace Larry King.'

 

' In the beginning we talked to the press and they asked if we would not end up covering a lot of fires. And I answered that we would cover fires until they burned out.
     Baghdad was like the Chicago fire.'

 

'AOL Time Warner will be eager to bring in innovation.  Pittman is innovative, and Jamie Kellner will be terrific for the company.'

 

 ' Itís an old story that you canít replace someone with nobody. They brought Stuart Varney back and he did okay. What Iíve heard about Dobbs is that he is linked to NBC for CNBC, and he may end up heading up the whole company.'

 


Reese Schonfeld on
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.
    I was sure it would work well. When did I know CNN would work? The first day.
      I was thinking about calling Vernon Jordan to thank him for getting shot the weekend before we got started. We got started on a Sunday and held off until 6:00 p.m. That day then-President Carter was in a hospital with Vernon Jordan, who was shot the night before. I knew that we had made it.
     I learned just two months ago that in 1980 Rupert Murdoch wanted to buy CNN from Ted Turner. They knew it would work. And as far back as early 1982, I knew that CBS and NBC offered to buy it. So there was no question that it would work. Once we got it up and kept it running for a few months, people knew it would work.

 

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.
    We had a 1 rating for the last six months I was there, so I know there is at least a 1.0 or maybe a 2.0 rating.
    By May 1996, CNN was down to a 0.4. Between the three [major networks] that exist, they can get a 2.0. NY1 had a 1.5 rating in New York City in the first nine months last year, CNBC had a 0.6, CNN had a 0.3, MSNBC and Fox had 0.1s and Headline News had no discernible ratings. Youíre talking 2.6 ratings points in the five boroughs.
    Thatís not a lot of people. You have seven million people in New York and two percent are watching, so you have about 140,000 viewers. But thatís a respectable circulation. Figuring that NY1 probably cumes 40 or 50 percent over the week, thatís larger than the New York Times. If you include that, you can get a 3.0 rating.

 

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.
    Local has always been CNNís weakness and local always out-rates national news. The local news loses ratings when they go into national news.
    An old story is when Westinghouse was the first to make all-news radio successful. Successful is weather and traffic. Primetime is 6:00-9:00 a.m. In New York, NY1 out-rates every other broadcast except ĎTodayí in the morning because they give people what they want. Theyíve got weather and traffic while the others go to soft news.

 

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. 
    I find it hard to think of any major innovation that CNN has brought in, in the past 15 years. Baghdad was a great accomplishment but that was using technology in an exciting situation. 
   In the beginning we talked to the press and they asked if we would not end up covering a lot of fires. And I answered that we would cover fires until they burned out.
     Baghdad was like the Chicago fire. All three or four networks were airing live at the beginning [of the Gulf War.] CNN brought in a direct link to Amman and was not cut off like the networks. It was so great because they had voices over the bombing. There were no pictures of the bombs, it was talk radio. It was a great feat but it was not a breakthrough. 
    AOL Time Warner will be eager to bring in innovation. Ted likes CNN the way it is and he doesnít want any changes. I brought in ďCrossfireĒ and he didnít like that show. Iíve heard that unless an idea comes from Ted, he does not like it. 
    At AOL Time Warner, [co-COO, Bob] Pittman is innovative and [Turner Broadcasting division chairman and CEO] Jamie Kellner will be terrific for the company.
    I worked on a series for Orion, and people there thought he was the best boss they ever had. He proved how good he was because the people who worked for him went on to head their companies. Thatís [CNNís] hope, and it may be that Kellner will bring back innovation.

 

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.
     Itís an old story that you canít replace someone with nobody. They brought Stuart Varney back and he did okay. What Iíve heard about Dobbs is that he is linked to NBC for CNBC, and he may end up heading up the whole company.

 

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.
    If I were running CNN, Iíd have a contract with Bill Clinton right now and replace Larry King. 
    There are all sorts of stories, like HMOs, which are a topic of conversation at least once a month in every family. If there is that much anger and conversation about a topic, you can build a show around that and possibly make a difference.

 

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.
    Weíre launching a broadband streaming video, not including news, right now. Weíre cutting our pieces into four to six minutes, not half-hours. 
    The news is often not very interesting. You have to make it seem that if they turn it off they will miss the greatest news story ever. But thatís definitely not happening now.


-Kevin Downey is a staff writer for Media Life.


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