Today in History: CNN Launches and Changes the World (1980)

An early CNN broadcast. CNN

The age of the 24 hour news cycle seems like it has been around forever. However, it wasn’t all that long ago that in order to get news, people had to wait for their newspaper or their once-a-day local news broadcasts either on TV or on all day news radio.

Everything changed on June 1st, 1980, when CNN (which stands for Cable News Network) started to broadcast news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, its first news item was about the assassination of civil rights leader, Vernon Jordan.

Prior to the launch of CNN, television news (specifically national news), was limited to a once a day, 30 minute spot in the evening. These spots were dominated by NBC, CBS, and ABC. And while CNN’s launch would be small (it was only available to around 2 million households in 1980), it grew incredibly quickly over the course of the next decades.

CNN

This was helped by the increase in the number of people who had access to cable in the mid 1980s and 1990s. By 1985, around 50 million Americans had cable in their house, which (considering the population at the time) was around 21%. By the time 1995 rolled around, 7 out of 10 households had cable access.

Some historians argue that the creation of news networks like CNN and The Weather Channel (created May 2, 1982) drove more people to get paid cable instead of relying on over-the-air programming and news.

Since its introduction, CNN has become just one of several channels that cater to the news-obsessed culture that it helped create in the 1980s and 90s. Channels like FOX News Channel, MSNBC, BBC, and Al Jazeera have all taken spots on our cable boxes.

This isn’t completely a US phenomenon either. As technology advanced in other countries, specifically in Europe and Asia, so did the spread of 24 hour news. CNN itself has a broad reach internationally with CNN International.

CNN didn’t have respect as a news organization in 1980. Often times it was called “Chicken Noodle Network” as it frequently lost money. Robert Turner was the founder of the Network, ignored the criticism and focused on building up CNN’s news bureaus around the world, and buying up competitors. In 1983, Turner bought Satellite News Network (owned by ABC), which was CNN’s biggest competitor. Because they were providing around the clock news coverage, CNN was often able to break stories long before their network counterparts.

Nothing brings in the ratings like war, so it isn’t surprising that CNN gained real traction during the First Gulf War and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. According to some reports, CNN’s audience doubled during this time period as more and more people found it prudent to watch the news outside of the normal once-a-day cycle that most were used to at the time.

Robert ‘Ted’ Turner, founder of CNN. Wikipedia

It wouldn’t be a complete story without talking a little about bias. Over the years, CNN has been labeled part of the so-called “Leftist media” while Fox (its most major competitor today) is the bastion of the right-wing.

CNN and its competitors are facing a huge challenge now that people are moving away from getting their news on TV to getting it on the internet. Thousands of websites and thousands of accounts on Social Media offer much cheaper, quicker access to news, even if it isn’t always the best quality.

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