“This is CNN.” When the baritone actor James Earl Jones first uttered those words, the news industry changed forever.

When billionaire Ted Turner launched CNN (Cable News Network) in Atlanta on June 1, 1980, the news station was hit with a tremendous amount of skepticism. CNN was the world’s first 24-hour news service and the first news-only network broadcast. 

In the United States, the Big Three (ABC, CBS, and NBC) dominated the news business with their 30-minute nightly national broadcasts. No one expected Turner’s upstart news service to survive. At its beginning, CNN was available to only two million homes in the United States. Today, CNN is broadcast to more than 90 million households in the United States as well as 370 million households worldwide with its CNN International edition. 

A New Paradigm of Telling the News

Turner initially thought of blending the cable television industry with satellite, and a belief that the news would be of interest to insomniacs, such as himself. He first bought a tiny UHF station in Atlanta, CH.17, later rechristened TBS in the late 1960s. Back then, television stations would shut down in the middle of the night. Turner saw the draw of broadcasting 24 hours a day and asked his people why they couldn’t, or shouldn’t broadcast all night long. 

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required stations to have public service news in the middle of the night, so Turner created his first late-night news service on TBS. 

CNN began with just 300 employees. Its first news story was the attempted assassination of civil rights leader Vernon Jordan. 

At first, it wasn’t a smooth sail for the upstart network. Turner’s station was losing money and was ridiculed as the “Chicken Noodle Network,” but he kept with it. In 1982, he developed a sister station, CNN2, which was launched on January 1. It featured a continuous 24-hour cycle of 30-minute news broadcasts. The channel later became known as CNN Headline News and is now known as simply HLN. 

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Ted Turner in the CNN newsroom in Atlanta. (CNN)

In 1983, Turner purchased Satellite News Channel, owned in part by ABC, thereby eliminating CNN’s main competitor.

Since its inauspicious debut, CNN has expanded its reach, building up a plethora of cable and satellite television providers, several websites, and specialized closed-circuit channels. The company has 42 bureaus (11 domestic, 31 international), as well as more than 900 affiliated local stations. 

CNN’s Reporting Leaves Behind the Big Three

The Big Three were left behind during the first Gulf War of 1990-91 and in the early hours of Desert Storm. CNN reported from Baghdad and from inside the Al Rashid Hotel. It also carried the first live interviews; its reporters were on the ground during the bombing campaign. Because of a delay in the video feed, the reporters were talking via telephone to the news hosts in Atlanta. It resembled, some said, the Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from England during the Battle of Britain. 

CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War garnered over a billion viewers worldwide. Reporters and anchors such as Bernie Shaw, Peter Arnette, Christine Amanpour, Wolf Blitzer among others, became household names.

And they carried the first broadcasts of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11. Two CNN reporters were live on the air just after 9:00 a.m. as the second jetliner hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center and reported the news that U.S. officials determined “that this is a terrorist act.”

CNN’s birth spawned several other news networks. Yet, the station has been accused of conducting false balance in its recording. During the 2016 presidential election, former President Donald Trump called CNN the “Clinton News Network.” 

As of 2020, CNN had fallen to third in viewership among Cable News stations and behind Fox News and MSNBC, averaging more than 972,000 viewers. 

Nevertheless, CNN changed the way the news was reported and ultimately was the death knell of the majority of the newspaper industry. After CNN, news consumers didn’t have to wait for the evening or morning edition of the papers or have the news broadcast cut down to just 30 minutes every evening.