I can talk about this because I have known far too many former CNN leaders, anchors and alumni to not know a little bit about the history of the company.
And let’s be clear, the new man at the helm, Jeff Zucker, formerly of NBC is not the man to blame for the network’s precarious position. He has tried many a new move and likely will attempt more as this once king-of-cable news continues to attempt to find its place in a world it once dominated.
But make no mistake, his task is mighty and time may not be his friend.
The demise of CNN can be traced to three names — Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. It’s that simple. Turner started out in his business life as a conservative Republican and continued to walk a fine line between his pro-GOP past and his later tilt to the left during the early years of CNN. Yes, he was seen in the company of incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s and into 1980, but that could hardly be viewed as a huge transgression given his ties to Carter’s native Georgia.
But in the early ’80s he attended some Reagan fundraisers and literally set up shop in then-Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Mack Mattingly’s office as he sought to fight legislation he viewed as a big-network attack on his fledgling company. And while Turner became increasingly flamboyant and liberal, his passion for covering breaking news and doing so with as little bias as possible was unwavering.
Ironically, CNN’s big break came during the 1990 war in Iraq. Turner managed to get hold of a then-virtually unheard of camera operated by satellite, and his man in Baghdad captured riveting and live shots of U.S. missiles striking the city in an effort, led by a Republican president, to end aggression by Saddam Hussein.
Its stock soared, and by 1996, with its world headquarters hosting the Olympic games and CNN dominating the world of cable news, Ted Turner chose to sell to Time Warner. It is a move I believe Turner regrets in many ways to this very day.
About this same, time media mogul Rupert Murdoch persuaded likely the best political and corporate media mind of our lifetime, Roger Ailes, to leave what would become MSNBC and run Fox News. The rest, as they say, is history.
Understand that, allegedly, Turner and Murdoch have been “feuding” for years, with most of the feud coming from the Turner side. That said, it’s likely that the two have much more in common than meets the eye.
Both Murdoch and Turner enjoy phenomenal business sense. Both are entrepreneurs willing to creatively imagine and ultimately see to fruition very big dreams. And both men chose to rely on the best talent they could find to help them reach their goals.
But Turner chose to leave the playing field and pursue numerous other interests while Murdoch continued to be actively in the game and in control. And while Murdoch’s chosen cable news chief, Ailes, remained a focused and innovative constant at Fox, Time Warner went through numerous machinations and the inner-leadership at CNN bounced around from true news-types to whatever.
MSNBC finally found a voice by taking ownership of whatever left-leaning audience there might be for cable news. If one considers the likes of Al Sharpton informative or credible, then MSNBC is a perfect, albeit quirky, fit.
But CNN has been left with no clear audience and, most alarmingly, a lack of the Turner-style zest for fighting to be the best at reporting breaking news. The evidence in that can be found years earlier when, under Ailes’ leadership, Fox chose to be the first network to run a constant ticker with updated news during 9/11. Like Turner’s satellite camera of years earlier, that ticker symbolized a rise to prominence and is now an industry standard.
Now Mr. Zucker is reportedly moving with lightning speed to put zest in slow-moving news programs and put entertainment to the forefront of the CNN Headline brand.
But time is his enemy, and ratings may be his undoing. Mr. Ailes, who might as well have invented the secret formula to Atlanta’s best-known export, Coca-Cola, now seems to have complete command over his competition. His primetime shows are destroying the competition, even in the most sought-after age demographics.
And as for Mr. Turner, whose son, it should be noted, recently ran as a Republican for Congress in South Carolina, there is little doubt that, regardless of his political views, his business sense and entrepreneurial style are much lacking at CNN.
Recently, the Atlanta Braves, once also owned by Ted Turner, announced that they would be leaving the City of Atlanta for the northern suburbs and would abandon the stadium named after Turner and nicknamed “The Ted.”
The real question now is whether CNN will become a diminished shell of its past. Will that famed neon CNN emblem someday burn out and disappear as well? Time, moving so quickly, will tell.
Matt Towery heads the polling firm InsiderAdvantage.