Last week on June 1, CNN (known originally as Cable News Network) modestly celebrated its 30th anniversary as the first channel to provide 24-hour television news coverage. The first broadcast on June 1, 1980 was a report by co-anchors David Walker and Lois Hart. At that time the concept of a 24-hour news channel was met with skepticism. It was the wacky project of Ted Turner’s then small company, Turner Broadcast Company of Atlanta, in an era where cable TV was still early in its development. In 1980 there were only a handful of cable networks. For example, ESPN was still in its infancy, and “video had not yet killed the radio star” as MTV had not yet signed on.
June 1, 1980, now in retrospect, could also be considered the symbolic “anniversary” of the beginning of the erosion of broadcast TV network news. On June 1, 1980 legendary Walter Cronkite still anchored the CBS Evening News and was nearing his 1981 retirement, but broadcast TV network news was still the primary delivery mechanism for the major national and international news. When Cronkite stepped down as the anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1981, there were 50 Million Americans who watched one of the three half-hour evening news broadcasts. Today, although the U.S. population has grown by roughly 35% during the last 30 years to more than 300 Million, broadcast network news viewing has declined by more than 50%, to 22 Million average viewers in 2009. We know all the reasons for this—CNN/Fox/MSNBC and an avalanche of other digital and traditional options make the twenty-two minutes of actual news delivered between 6:30 and 7:00 pm an afterthought for many Americans.
Despite the ratings erosion, the network news anchors still command top salaries. The most highly compensated is Katie Couric who is in the final year of her initial agreement and reportedly earns $15 Million annually. In terms of ratings, CBS Evening News at 6.7-7 Million viewers has roughly 1/3 less viewers than ratings leader NBC with approximately 10 Million viewers. However, at a $15 Million annual salary, Couric reportedly earns roughly 50% more than NBC’s Brian Williams.
In the 1980s CNN, which had a rough few initial years, became respected through its coverage of the 1986 Challenger disaster and over time major worldwide and national events have served to spike its ratings. Obviously CNN’s business environment has changed as well, with the introduction of competitors Fox News and MSNBC in 1996, and as a result CNN does not dominate 24-hour TV news as it once did. In fact one of the reasons for its “modest” 30th birthday celebration, in contrast to its big 20th birthday bash in 2000, is the decline of its ratings and prominence.
Obviously in today’s twitterized, YouTubian digital world, news is delivered instantaneously in various traditional and non-traditional means. Speed and spin are paramount, and accuracy and objectivity are alas secondary. CNN still deserves the credit for changing the paradigm in 1980 of the way TV news was delivered.