Inside the earliest days of CNN and the birth of 24-hour cable news
It’s impossible now—in the always-on universe in which we dwell—to imagine a time before news was instantly available to the casual consumer.
It’s also impossible—during this pandemic—to imagine life before Zoom calls and FaceTime from the privacy of your living room.
Only a few short decades ago, innovations like cable, satellites, portable cameras, microwave trucks, and videotape were just beginning to dawn. And in the hands of a small group of broadcasters and journalists, this technology made it possible to launch the first 24-hour news network.
Cable News Network debuted on June 1, 1980, in just over a million homes. Few imagined that the rogue yachtsman Ted Turner, who’d discovered “cable before cable was cool” by beaming his UHF station in Atlanta around the nation, could possibly compete with the almighty three networks—which commanded an audience of more than 40 million people for their nightly news.
What would possibly fill the time? Would they have to blow things up?
In 1987, an event occurred underscoring that there was, indeed, a populist appetite for news. While the explosion of the shuttle Challenger the year before helped the network gain acceptance, it was the story of a little girl in Texas that yielded CNN’s highest ratings to date. Baby Jessica’s plight was eerily similar to that of a little girl in California 40 years earlier, a drama that had been the basis for the very first television news live shot. This modern drama had a happier ending.
What follows is an excerpt from my book, Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News.
It happened in an instant on a hot October morning in a yard in Midland, Texas, as the kids played and the world pulsed with dramas great and small. Cissy McClure had stepped inside the white frame house on Tanner Drive to answer the phone. When she returned, her eighteen-month-old daughter, Jessica, had vanished. The girl’s playmates gestured frantically near the opening of an eight-inch hole in the ground—the little girl had fallen into an abandoned well. “I was only gone for five minutes,” the incredulous mother said. “I was only gone for five minutes.”
In Texas oil country, mobilizing a skilled rescue operation didn’t take long, but diamond-tipped pneumatic drill bits were no match for the fortress of hard rock surrounding Jessica. Digging a tunnel parallel to the well, and then across to it, would not be easy or quick, even once workmen unleashed a custom auger bit and the rathole rig they nicknamed “Green Machine.” From the sheer vibration of a backhoe, the trapped girl plummeted farther, from eight feet down to 22.
Local press arrived soon after. Kids didn’t fall into wells every day in Midland. The television cameraman from KMID lowered a microphone into the shaft that allowed Jessica’s parents to talk to their trapped child. One minute, the girl was crying. The next minute, she was sweetly singing nursery rhymes.
“How does a kitten go?” one of the rescue workers asked.
“Meow,” came the response. She was alive, and they were going to get her.
Thanks to KMID’s new microwave truck, the only one in town, the station had an advantage over the other locals as the ordeal dragged on: Two reporters took turns filing live updates from the scene to the Midland audience. Soon, six satellite news-gathering trucks from bigger, better-funded television markets barreled into town. These more powerful beasts allowed reporters to trumpet news far beyond the region. The network of affiliates created by Jane Maxwell years earlier made it easy for CNN to pick up the phone and ask for the story.
As word spread across the vast, interconnected, global village, a snarl of media from everywhere descended on West Texas. Dozens of photographers perched like hawks on ladders they’d brought or borrowed from the neighbors, angling for the money shot. Surely it was just a matter of time before Jessica was plucked from beneath the earth.
Stock markets all over the globe were fumbling precipitously, and would crash just a few days later. The nation awaited a Senate vote on a polarizing conservative Supreme Court nominee. An Iranian missile struck a U.S. tanker in Kuwait. Scandals roiled the next year’s presidential election, with candidates Gary Hart and Joe Biden bowing out after, respectively, a shameful discovery and a series of gaffes. First Lady Nancy Reagan, making headlines because of a breast cancer diagnosis, delayed a biopsy so she—like the rest of an anxious world—could track the story that trumped all other concerns: the fate of baby Jessica.
In the year 1987, half the United States was now wired for cable, with 40 million sets equipped to receive CNN. Just as networks were beginning to scale back their international bureaus and rethinking the limo-and-Learjet mindset that had long propelled them, the network formerly derided as Chicken Noodle News was expanding—from 300 to 1,500 people, spread across 18 bureaus around the world. The fact that CNN spent a third as much money to produce exponentially more hours of news was turning long-established news-gathering conventions upside down. Profits for the network had been on the rise—projected for this year to total more than $60 million.
In Atlanta, CNN needed so much more space it had traded headquarters in a former Jewish country club in midtown for a failed indoor amusement park, featuring the world’s longest escalator, inside a tired high-rise hotel complex downtown. Bunky Helfrich’s crew retrofit the place to the tune of $30 million. There was even a movie theater, where Ted could play his jewel in the crown, the newly acquired film, his favorite, Gone With the Wind.
This fortress-like building seemed more secure than the Tara on Techwood; here, Ted’s office had been wired with controls to operate the network should terrorists attack. Gone, though, were the two quaintest quirks of the old space: the overhead thuds of wrestling that startled newsroom employees during the weekend matches, and the chance to run into Ted in his bathrobe in the break room in the middle of the night.
For anyone who didn’t know that he “was cable when cable wasn’t cool,” Ted commissioned a twangy country music song to trumpet the message. An accompanying music video was taped late one night. Those who’d been around for his ascent remembered that the Turner empire traced its roots back to billboards, onto which he also plastered this “cool” campaign.
Ted could sing that he was cool to his heart’s content, but by 1987, his baby wasn’t entirely his any longer. Earlier in the year, he’d sold a 37% chunk of his empire to a group of cable companies in exchange for $560 million and their executives’ say in how Turner Broadcasting was run. It was that, or risk sinking under the nearly $2 billion in debt he’d acquired to finance the purchase of historic movie studio MGM. That deal had been universally regarded as bonkers, with Ted selling back the studio to its wily owner, Kirk Kerkorian, months later, while holding on to the blue-chip film library that later became the basis for Turner Network Television. After years of risky moves and deals where he’d managed, improbably, to emerge triumphant, this time he’d come perilously close to being crushed.
Even when things didn’t work out for Ted, oh, how far he’d traveled from the days of the baseball nose push and the Super Bad Party Ring and groveling to viewers to please lend him a couple of bucks. Now he haggled with the titans of media. He’d risen, improbably, to titan status, too. Before MGM, there’d been his failed takeover of the “whorehouse,” CBS; after, a brief flirtation with the media mogul from Australia, Rupert Murdoch, who’d just planted a flag on the U.S. television landscape with his purchase of seven independent stations and his own movie studio investment, 20th Century Fox. Gannett’s Al Neuharth had designs on the Turner empire, but Ted refused to sell, especially to the dinosaur newspaper business. Later, he deflected NBC’s parent company, GE, and Jack Welch.
He’d even moved on in his personal life, finally, mercifully, divorcing Janie. For a while, he took up with his 30-year-old private pilot—titans need not fly coach, as Ted had bragged for years he loved to do—and eventually attracted the affections of the ultimate symbol of success: a movie star. Jane Fonda knew a thing or two about the spoils of early technology adoption. While Ted was conquering the cable landscape, she’d been raking in a fortune, early in the VCR revolution, by peddling exercise tapes.
The win/loss column mostly balanced, even if Ted’s books didn’t. His Cable Music Channel failed after a month, and he sold out to MTV; not long after, he picked up Westinghouse’s Satellite News Channel, the competitor that inspired him to start Headline News. The Goodwill Games, his attempt to do the Olympics one better, had lost him $26 million, but he thoroughly believed it a worthy investment that underscored his personal involvement in hastening the end of the Cold War. (It also got him an in with the Russians.) You could almost believe Ted when he insisted his motivational force was not money. Bridging the divide was his forte. Who else could claim friendship with archconservative Senator Jesse Helms and communist Fidel Castro—whom he and CNN host Liz Wickersham had returned to visit again in 1983? (The promotional spot they’d taped with him back in 1982 had never made it to air, vetoed by Ted’s shocked employees, who refused to buckle to his insistence it air—but the stuffed ducks were still prominently displayed in his office, a totem of his globalist transformation.)
Aside from the cast of characters and the theatrics, his most enduring legacy had been in upending the conventional order of the television universe and the news business.
“They are watching us in Moscow right now, in Havana, in London,” Ted bragged as deal after intoxicating deal was signed to beam CNN around the globe—Canada, Australia, Japan, Mexico, China. (In more restrictive countries, of course, the channel was off-limits to all but its ruling elite, confined for the most part to their offices and tourist hotels.) “Within the next three years, virtually every leader in the world will be watching CNN with a satellite receiver.”
Indeed, the same potent cocktail of satellites and cable television that had put Ted on the map was currently wreaking havoc in every corner of the planet. Governments accustomed to controlling television were yielding to commercial newcomers as well as the incursion of “cultural imperialists” like Ted. But it wasn’t American culture Ted was hoping to sell. It was some vast, ineffable promise to save the world.
“I’m trying to get bigger, so I’ll have more influence. It’s almost like a religious fervor,” he said. He still muttered, from time to time, that he should run for President. “My main concern is to be a benefit to the world, to build up a global communications system that helps humanity come together, to control population, to stop the arms race, to preserve our environment. We’re steaming at 30 knots on the Titanic, trying to break the transatlantic record on an iceberg-strewn sea. We’re out of control, we’ve got to get in control.”
Could television help the world steady its course, to coalesce and transform? Or was it, indeed, a pernicious anesthetic, the Hitler of its time, a destructive force worse than cigarettes that, Ted believed, had turned the American populace “lazy, drugs, homosexuals, sex maniacs, materialists, disrespectful”? Ted, the television magnate who despised television, couldn’t seem to make peace with the fact that, after all these years, it was a bit of both.
As the rescue of baby Jessica dragged on, the weary local crew kept vigil, afraid to duck out for bathroom or meal breaks lest they miss the money shot. Even though these stations typically signed off the air each night, there was no question they’d staff the switchboard and stay on the air all night for this.
From the new news mission control in downtown Atlanta, CNN producers decided the story was big enough to merit sending their own crew to Midland, rather than continue piggybacking off affiliate feeds. CNN’s Dallas bureau chief, Tony Clark, found himself knocking on doors of surrounding homes, hoping to borrow both a phone and a ladder. Though technology had progressed far enough that images from Midland could be beamed live around the world, a hardline phone was still necessary to call back to the newsroom.
A kid plus distress equaled timeless drama. Clark and many of his colleagues hadn’t worked at the network back in June 1981, when CNN founding president Reese Schonfeld picked up a satellite feed from Italy, where efforts had been underway to free a 2-year-old boy trapped in a well near Rome.
As for Schonfeld, he could only view this latest human-interest circus from a distance. He’d been gone from CNN for five years now, since May 1982.
The new book Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News (Abrams Press), by Lisa Napoli, will be published on May 12, 2020. Interested readers can preorder copies now.
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