On June 1,1980, as our country was about to commemorate the 36th anniversary of D Day, a different beachhead was about to be occupied, one on which the dissemination of news–both nationally and locally– would be forever altered. In the basement of what had been an abandoned country club in Atlanta, a switch was flipped and cable news was born. Now, 40 years later, that single cell that would become CNN has mutated into a variety of national news coverage. It has also served as a catalyst for the expansion of local TV news– particularly here in Philadelphia.
Prior to that historic launch by Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner, the three major TV networks–ABC, CBS and NBC–each telecast a half-hour national news program at dinner time. In Philadelphia, they piggy-backed our local news programs, as well as delivery of what had been our fading afternoon newspaper, the Philadelphia Bulletin (it would cease publication in 1982).
In what seems so foreign now, television channels 3,6 and 10 had just two daily half-hour programs – 6 pm and 11 pm. For a long time, a solo anchor on each–respectively Vince Leonard, Gunner Back and the icon John Facenda–served as the talent. There were no co-anchors and no hours upon hours of news coverage. But that all greatly expanded, as increased personnel and satellite-equipped remote news vans were added to the mix.
With CNN’s launch, a 24-hour cycle of national news had been established. The shooting of President Reagan nearly one year later, showed the rapid coverage delivery of the fledgling entity, as its reporting of the near-tragedy provided a scoop over the established networks. Through acquisitions of other entities, CNN grew in respect and audience size. Its coverage in the 1990’s of the Persian Gulf War and the OJ Simpson trial provided real-time drama to an audience with an increasing appetite for news.
In what seems so foreign now, television channels 3,6 and 10 had just two daily half-hour programs – 6 pm and 11 pm.
By 1996, both MSNBC and Fox News were born. It followed the American way of a successful venture being challenged by nascent competitors. It also set the ground for political slants that vied for the prizes of larger market shares. As CNN began to veer left from its moderate political positioning, Fox came on board with its “Fair and Balanced” slogan as a right-leaning entity. Meanwhile, MSNBC quickly moved to the left.
In a way, the three new competitors for the national TV news audience mirrored the three traditional conveyors. NBC and CBS had long been regarded as left leaning, while ABC was thought to be more to the right side of the spectrum. Where say Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on NBC and Walter Cronkite on CBS occupied similar lanes, Peter Jennings was on a different path on ABC.
As far as commentary was concerned, that was originally relegated to a late afternoon segment on CNN. The Crossfire show featured a left-right exchange between the liberal Tom Braden and the conservative Pat Buchanon. That concept of opposing viewpoints on the same show–let alone network–now seems quite quaint. That was before ratings-driven results set in motion an extremism geared to improved bottom lines.
Soon Fox emerged under the stewardship of political media operative Roger Ailes, who had helped Richard Nixon in his run for President. Ailes signed conservative radio hosts such as Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glen Beck to host opinion programs on that network. MSNBC also followed the nightly, prime-time abandonment of straight news reporting in favor of political slanting designed to increase ratings. In the years ahead, they would add the likes of liberal Chris Matthews and later equally-positioned Rachel Maddow. The corners of political-driven debate were now firmly established.
Just what has prompted this trend of polarization that now herds people of the same political slant into their own corner of information? Of course, its ratings and the profit centers that emerge from their establishments. In terms of prime time viewers (according to Statista.com) for April, 2020, Fox had 3.68-million sets of eyes on its hosts, while MSNBC showed 2.04-million and CNN came in at 1.95-million. Notice the cumulative split of conservative versus liberal leaning viewers at about 50-50.
Despite the strong identity that viewers have to these networks, a programming and perhaps political shift is never more than a few ratings books away. The very concept of ratings even went a long way into developing our current President, a high-profile real estate entrepreneur who secured the strongest of name-recognitions through participation in a TV reality show.
In the early days of CNN, I was present as Turner addressed a luncheon for what was then called The Philadelphia Television Radio Advertising Club (TRAC). While establishing what would eventually be his liberal brand of a news network, he recounted the history of his youth. In the monologue, he described an experience in the old South in which the n-word was used. As he uttered the actual word, I cast my gaze embarrassingly at an African-American colleague sitting at our radio station’s table. Some time later, when CNN was positioned firmly on the left, I couldn’t help but see the irony of a liberal entity being run by an apparent bigot.
In Marshall McLuhan’s declaration, “the medium is the message,” he believed the information vehicle itself warranted more attention than the individual content. In today‘s terms, people tend to gravitate toward the network more suited to their orthodoxies. Thus the mutation process continues.
Surely, with the arrival of Covid-19, a new beachhead is being contested—this time between our own political divisions. It is not clear who will emerge victorious in this war of ideas and words, or in future-such skirmishes. What is certain, however, is that seemingly uneventful day some 40 years ago started an eventful era. Indeed, it is one that has morphed into an existence that is far different from its original self.
Jeff Hurvitz is a freelance writer with a background in the media. A Philadelphia native, he is a resident of Abington Township. firstname.lastname@example.org