Missing satellites and motley crews, how 24-hour news was really born

Future News 88

What do you get when you cross a former billboard salesman turned yachtsman with a non-practicing lawyer from New Jersey? CNN, of course. The Cable News Network launched more than four decades ago on 1 June 1980, ushering in the age of 24-hour news. 

The project was backed and propelled into existence by maverick entrepreneur Ted Turner, an America's Cup winner and owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team at the time. He hired founding CNN President Reese Schonfeld in 1979 to help start the channel (Schonfeld, who passed away last July, also created the Food Network). 

The Columbia Law graduate had risen through the ranks of the newsreel business and eventually started his own outfit, Independent Television News Association, which eventually caught the attention of Turner due to its output of local news footage. 

It would only take the unlikely duo a year to get CNN going from Atlanta, Georgia, with a motley crew of young, hungry upstarts and “people lost in their careers”, as Lisa Napoli, author of Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour New, told FN. 

There was also a human resources advantage of not launching in one of the US’ main media centres, namely New York or Los Angeles. Broadcast staff in Atlanta didn’t have to be part of a union, demanding union wages and union benefits. 

For Napoli, who started her career at CNN, the founding story of the channel was all about a “convergence of timing of the world, the person and [Turner’s] gumption”. She has detailed some vivid and lively anecdotes of what the early days were really like. Forget the shinny, polished product that CNN puts out today. 

The beginning of the channel was all about setting up shop in an abandoned country club, which later became known as the CNN Center, and trying to find a “missing” satellite on launch day.

It’s a story about charting new waters, something that must have appealed to yacht-loving Turner, and creating an entirely new medium of media. Americans at the time were used to a dose of evening national news at 6.30pm EST, far from a constant cycle of information.  

“Even people in the news business, who lived and breathed the news and loved journalism, couldn’t even imagine this possibility,” Napoli said. Those sentiments were shared by the big brands, who stayed away from the early CNN. “They had a hard time getting advertising...it was like the start of the internet,” Napoli explained. 

Despite strong ratings, Schonfeld was axed by Turner in 1982 just two years after successfully getting the venture off the ground. Proper competition to CNN wouldn’t come until Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and rival MSNBC both launched in 1996.

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For Napoli, success for CNN didn’t come until the late ‘80s and early 1990s thanks to a “slow and steady march of cable and the adoption of watching news,” a phenomenon catalysed by the end of the Cold War and events like The Gulf War. 

But perhaps what is most telling as to whether 24-hour news has been a success or not is Napoli’s own news consumption habits. She tries to avoid listening to broadcasts nowadays. 

“I feel as if so much of it is noisy hype, not measured, thoughtful and deliberate,” Napoli explained. “It’s the nature of the medium and while the medium is terrific for breaking news, terrific in the sense of dramatic, I feel no need to be up on news as it happens after a lifetime in the news business. How much is there that I as a regular person need to know instantly? That dopamine thrill of being up on the latest whatever doesn’t do it for me.” 

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