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CNN Celebrates 40 Years

A 41-year-old Ted Turner makes a dedicatory speech as part of CNN’s June 1, 1980 opening day ceremony. (Image credit: CNN)

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—In the springtime of 1980, Americans were getting accustomed to “Post-It Notes,” and a few were just starting to twist Rubik’s Cubes. Out in Washington state, inhabitants in the Mount St. Helens region were beginning to experience frequent earthquakes and explosions; waiting and watching to see what would happen next. None of this, however, was being given much notice by the growing number of arrivals at a new enterprise rapidly taking shape in Atlanta.

Ted Turner’s latest dream—a 24-hour-per-day news service—was being transformed into a reality by a small army of construction workers, broadcast engineers, journalists and TV production people. He christened it “Cable News Network” or “CNN” for short. The nonstop flow of news generated would be delivered to North American cable customers via satellite, following the pattern of Turner’s now highly successful WTBS “superstation” launched four years earlier.

However, many in the industry likened what Turner was putting together as a crapshoot—a very big one—with not only his personal fortune and reputation at stake, but also the lives and careers of many of the individuals he’d recruited from successful jobs and was transplanting to Atlanta.

Even Broadcasting magazine—the industry “bible”—while applauding the concept, was equally pragmatic about Turner’s chance for success:

“No matter how desirable a service the Cable News Network provides, it cannot be physically delivered to most urban television sets. That means it cannot be seen live by many of the people who make decisions in this country.”

Although it’s difficult to imagine today, cable really wasn’t that big a deal at the time; certainly not the cash cow it is now. It had existed primarily as a means for getting television signals into smaller communities with poor or no over-the-air reception, and only with the arrival of “superstations” and “premium” services such as HBO did cable attract viewer interest sufficient to warrant buildouts in larger markets. The editorial continued:

“The question is whether Turner can afford to wait for cable systems to be extended in such cities as New York, and built in such other cities of influence as Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago, not to mention Atlanta, his hometown. The guess here is that he may have to strike some alliance with the people he maligns above all others, the commercial broadcasters.”

“Predicting anything Turner may do is uncertain at best. But what he has done can be appraised. He has hired a large group of professional journalists and put them to interesting work. The hope here is that the Cable News Network stays in business.”

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True to form, the 41-year-old Turner was his usual cocky self in dismissing the “doubting Thomases.”

“I just love it when people say I can’t do something,” he remarked in an earlier Broadcasting interview. “There’s nothing that makes me feel better, because all my life, people have said I wasn’t going to make it.”

TURNER AND NEWS?

Curiously, those who knew Turner at the time of his CNN launch announcement thought it a bit odd that he would even consider such an initiative, as he’d formerly eschewed television news, relegating newscasts on his Ch. 17 Atlanta independent UHF station to the wee small hours of the morning so as not to upset normal schedules of sitcoms and old movies. Viewers who were up that late recalled that the anchor, Bill Tush, treated news in a comedic way, and was often accompanied at the anchor desk by a German shepherd. (Turner also had countered the local 6:00 p.m. airing of ABC network news with Star Trek reruns and gotten a ratings boost.)

“Ted, early on, was a ‘no-news is good news’ type of guy,” recalled Jim Schoonmaker, who was hired to direct newscasts at CNN, and along with fellow director Guy Pepper and Joe Torelli, to organize the “CNN College” that provided orientation for the disparate news staff being hired (mostly straight from college or small-market stations to save money).

“He said stations didn’t need to do news,” Schoonmaker said. “The irony was that he was very serious about doing a good job of news.”

GETTING READY FOR THE BIG DAY

To house the new news service and his existing WTBS “superstation,” Turner had purchased a former country club property. The 90,000 square-foot two-story structure, vaguely reminiscent of what a “Tara” mansion should look like, was not exactly a perfect fit for two round-the-clock TV operations, requiring some extensive modifications, including a tear-out and excavation of the original basement floor to create the needed celling height for the CNN operation going there. (WTBS would get the main floor, with the second floor reserved for offices.) However, this facility was far from being habitable when new and prospective recruits began arriving.

Schoonmaker, who’d flown in from Miami for an interview, recalled his initial impression upon arriving at another building Turner had purchased to serve as a training facility and interim office space until the Techwood Drive country club property was ready.

“It was a two-story ramshackle building in pretty bad shape,” he recalled. “I said to the cab driver ‘there’s something wrong; this can’t be it.’”

This disheveled “temp” facility was anything but what was expected of a network television operation, and had been jokingly dubbed “the White House” by the rapidly growing staff.

“Passing traffic would shake the building,” said Schoonmaker. “Desks were crammed in any old way. There were guys from BASYS, which was providing CNN’s “News Fury” computerized newsroom system, down in the basement trying to get it to work.”

CNN’s design and installation work was being handled as much as possible by Turner’s engineering team, which at the time consisted of a “Three Musketeers” group that had migrated to the Ch. 17 operation from other Atlanta stations. First to arrive had been Gene Wright, then Jack Ormand, and finally, Jack Verner. When Turner hired Wright, the station at best could be described as “engineering deficient.” However, by the time of the WTBS “superstation” launch decision, the trio had been able to restructure it into a respectable and reliable operation, fully up to the task of delivering programming to cable systems all across North America.

Verner, the only surviving member of the team, recalled the reassignment of duties when Turner announced his plans for a 24-hour news channel.

“When Ted made the decision to build CNN, Gene Wright was promoted to corporate engineering director, and he assigned Jack Ormand to head up CNN engineering. I took over Gene’s former position of chief engineer at the Superstation.”

Verner recalled that even with the creation of the new CNN engineering division, the threesome still worked shoulder-to-shoulder to shape Turner’s latest dream into a bricks-and-mortar reality.

“We literally worked seven days a week getting CNN designed,” he said.

ON THE AIR!

Somehow, everything fell into place by the planned June 1, 1980 opening day, with Turner delivering a dedicatory speech, and operations commencing at six that evening.

Tom Purdy, who produced the first hour of news at CNN, said that despite the “Manhattan Project” effort to get the new network built and on the air, almost everything was ready to go on opening day, with operations running smoothly during the premier hour, even though there’d been only a month for training and run-throughs by a staff from very disparate backgrounds.

“We did have an operator hit the ‘eject’ button on the VCR while a piece was on the air,” recalled Purdy. “But other than that and the computer system not being ready, it all worked well.”

Purdy also recalled CNN’s initial penetration and growth.

“It was pretty slim at the beginning. There was a sort of barometer on the wall to indicate the number of viewers now watching. My parents in Cincinnati couldn’t even see it then. It was really a ‘brave new world.’”

The pep talk that Turner delivered to the CNN staff that day also stuck with Purdy.

“He had stars in his eyes and wanted to change the world, and he told us ‘you’re the people who are going to help me do this!’”

Whether it was the pep talk or something in the Atlanta water, it worked.

The fledgling news operation thrived from the beginning, expanding in the first six months from carriage on just 172 cable systems to 550, and going from two million viewers to nearly double that number within the same time frame.

At the end of the first year-and-a-half of operation, CNN’s then president, Reese Schonfeld, reported 10,000 new subscribers were being added daily. He also observed that newspapers were beginning to quote CNN stories as “final proof of CNN’s credibility.”

Turner continued to expand the news organization, launching “CNN2,” now known as “CNN Headline News” slightly more than 18 months after CNN’s startup.

RETROSPECTIVE

CNN has continued to grow and prosper, becoming a major player in the reporting of breaking news events and a respected source of news throughout the world, with 36 editorial operations and some 3,000 employees. It is now a division of WarnerMedia and reaches more than 96.2 U.S. million households. CNN International additionally reaches more than 402 million households. 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

In addition to those individuals named in this account, the author wishes express his thanks to Lisa Napoli, author of the recently-released Abrams Press book, “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News,” for providing an advance copy of her work and other assistance in connection with the preparation of this story. Thanks are also in order to WarnerMedia’s Ashok Sinha, Alison Rudnick and Molly Berry for providing photographs and arranging the interview with Bob Hesskamp.