June 27, 2022 • Sam Grabel
The following is an excerpt from the latest episode of our podcast, “History Factory Plugged In,” featuring author Lisa Napoli, about the founding of CNN on June 1, 1980. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jason Dressel: Let’s start with the origin story of CNN. What was the initial vision, and what’s the backstory of how it came about?
Lisa Napoli: That’s a huge question, because it’s a matter of technology. It’s a perfect storm of technology, both with satellite and cable: cable being at a certain moment in time, with Ted Turner being at a certain moment in his evolution from billboard salesman to radio station owner to UHF station owner to deciding that this collision of satellite and cable could create something new. And it’s a surprising origin story, because it’s not what people think. It really was an amazing moment in our evolution of communication. And Ted Turner seized that moment and created CNN.
It’s so important to remember that when cable started, it was merely a utility. It wasn’t sexy; it wasn’t big. It was really a means to get a television signal to people who couldn’t get it otherwise. It didn’t have any sort of association other than literally a utility. And it was this perfect storm in the ’70s, when a couple of guys—they were all guys—recognized the potential power of cable. The next generation of TV was evolving. Ted Turner recognized that there was something there. He had taken this little junky left-for-dead UHF channel, which they called the lunatic fringe of television, and hoisted it up onto the satellite to make it go around the southeast, because he recognized that he could get his sporting teams broadcast to other markets, which would make his little existing UHF station a little bit more powerful and spread the gospel of the sports teams that he owned.
That’s why it’s so hard when we go back and historically look at these technologies, because nobody thought it would work. Nobody thought that people would pay money for television. Why would you pay money for bottled water?
JD: Why news? Was he a news junkie? Did he feel like there was this corporate citizenship obligation that he had?
LN: None of the above. He didn’t like news. He didn’t watch news. Many people didn’t watch news. There wasn’t much news to watch. There was a little bit of local news, a little bit of national news. News was seen as something like, “Eat your vegetables.” And the rest of the time, TV was entertainment and sports. What Ted was left with was knowing that HBO—which was not a blockbuster like it is today, it was this little sleepy service to put movies on cable television. He knew he couldn’t do movies. He couldn’t do sports, because these guys were starting ESPN. He didn’t want to cannibalize the old reruns of television shows that he was playing on what became TBS. So he just literally sat around with his money guys, who said, “Maybe we should do news.” But he was anti-news. That was partially in reaction to the fact that the news at the time was so limited and was seen, ironically, as incredibly biased. Ted Turner was very conservative, and he saw a liberal bias in in the news networks. He figured he would give them a run for his money.
JD: And how were they filling the programming in this whole new concept of 24/7 news?
LN: Even they didn’t know how they were going to fill the time. In the beginning, they contracted a flotilla of people that would be similar to having a big bench of editorial writers, you know, op-ed writers. And they would record basically essays with them and have them in the can so that when there wasn’t enough news—and of course, there wasn’t always enough news.
And that’s why this is such an interesting conversation to have, because it gets to the crux of the existential dilemma of what is news, and what was news in 1980, and what we consider to be news now are—it’s a very complex, nuanced question. Again, it requires stepping back, because now we take the availability of news 24/7 for granted. Back in 1980, no one imagined anybody would want to watch news. They didn’t understand what news was the way we understand it today.
JD: How was CNN initially received by the public and by the media industry? It wasn’t exactly an immediate hit, was it?
LN: This is another thing that’s hard for us to imagine—is that when CNN launched in 1980, there were something like under 18 million homes in the entire country that had the capacity to get it. Think about that. Of that 18 million, there were only something like under 2 million homes that actually got CNN. Cable was so different then; it wasn’t monopolized by just a few companies as it is today. There were tons of mom-and-pop cable organization companies all over, and they had to be persuaded to carry CNN. So CNN out of the gate had very, very few people who were able to see it, much less who actually tuned in. New York and D.C., the two biggest metro areas, couldn’t get CNN in the earliest days.
JD: The Iraq War is largely regarded as the sort of milestone turning point that catapulted CNN, and presumably cable news more broadly. But what about in the ’80s? What were some of the danger points where they almost went out of business? Or, conversely, were there some news events or other innovations or drivers that helped it hang on?
LN: Absolutely to both questions. With CNN, there were milestones along the way. If you if you were to make a chart of the 1980s’ news events and chart it against the ascent of cable television, they really are in tandem, accidentally—and lucky for Ted Turner. So basically, in ’81, you had the shooting of President Reagan. And that was a major milestone that I write about extensively in the book, because it put it put CNN on the map with the three broadcast networks who really didn’t take CNN seriously. People who did have CNN tuned in because a president had been shot. That was a very serious occasion.
So then if you march through the ’80s, you have the shuttle Challenger explosion; you have Tiananmen Square; you have a little girl who fell in a well, and that was that was even before the Iraq war. That was a major milestone for CNN, because by then just enough people had cable, and that was the perfect storm of a human-interest story. So stories like that made people go, “Where can I find out more about it as it’s happening? I’ll turn on CNN.”
JD: How did the emergence of the Internet in the 1990s change the model or change the product?
LN: That’s an important question. But as important is the fact that CNN got competition. And until CNN had competition in the mid-’90s, with the arrival of MSNBC and then Fox, everything was different. CNN was simply the one all-news channel that existed, and it was very plain-Jane. It wasn’t a lot of shouting, and there weren’t a lot of celebrities. And then as soon as the other two channels arrived, it changed everything about the tone and tenor of news and cable news. And then, as you point out, a few years later, the Web started to take its place in the universe. It didn’t change everything overnight. People didn’t know what it was for, especially news organizations. They didn’t know how to grapple with it. But once it started its stranglehold on our universe, it did change everything, because it ratcheted up the speed. So that collision of those two things really was CNN 2.0, if you will.
To learn more about the history of CNN, check out our podcast, “History Factory Plugged In.”