1980: CNN Launches, Ted Turner Says It Won't Bow to Ad Pressure

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The cable founder pledged to invest $3 million a month in the upstart channel while enlisting voices like Ralph Nader as commentators even if ad partners griped about the choices.

On June 1, 1980, the words "CNN: The News Channel" flickered on the small screen for the first time. Just prior to its debut, founder Ted Turner made his pitch to the press about the need for the network, how it could thrive (even when losing $2 million a month to start) and why it wouldn't "knuckle under" to advertising pressure. The Hollywood Reporter's news article on the launch, headlined "Turner conference outlines strategy for all-news CNN," is below:

The medium was the message when telecommunications impresario Ted Turner and Cable News Network president Reese Schonfeld held a joint news conference via satellite from CNN studios in Atlanta last Friday to answer scores of questions from journalists, cable executives and others from all around the country. CNN began nationwide telecasting via hundreds of cable affiliates, representing over two million subscribers, yesterday at 3 p.m. 

The inquiries were telephoned in to Turner and Schonfeld from over 20 cable system offices nationwide which have affiliated with CNN and which are equipped with satellite-receive earth stations. The calls streamed in from small towns and major markets alike, testifying to the small town and rural importance of the medium. And obviously basking in the excitement and media attention was Turner, the flamboyant yachtsman-turned-entrepreneur who's bankrolling this unprecedented new form of TV and is determined to "take on and beat" the commercial network news operations at their own game. 

The first phases won't be easy — or inexpensive. Turner said that by investing roughly $3 million per month in CNN and its staff of 300 — roughly one-third of the news budget of any one of the commercial nets — he stands to lose $2 million per month during at least the first 18 months of operation. Success will depend on persuading "the entire cable industry" to carry CNN, he stated, at the relatively formidable cost to the local cable operator of 15 cents per subscriber per month. While the initial affiliate count is roughly one-third lower than had been hoped for, Turner expressed confidence that more major cable operators would commit to CNN once the service had proven itself. 

A 20-minute compilation tape was shown prior to the press conference, and summarized the various program segments offered by CNN. 

Locally, Theat Cable has affiliated with CNN and now carries the round-the-clock signal on channel "J." Theta's top management hosted the press conference (via satellite) here locally in the Santa Monica offices.

CNN will offer a distinctive option to the fare of the three commercial networks, Turner said, by aiming its news and feature-oriented programming at the audiences available at different times of the day and by strongly counterprogramming at key times. Offering a two-hour comprehensive domestic and international newscast during primetime (EST) is one example of the latter, he stated. 

To supplement its domestic bureaus and four foreign bureaus, CNN will subscribe to the various newsfilm services and has initiated newsfilm exchange agreements with various U.S. and foreign broadcast stations and networks, Schonfeld said. Local cable affiliates were invited to submit local news stories and features. 

While CNN is largely dependent upon national advertising revenues, and counts 17 initial sponsors, Turner said that CNN would never "knuckle under" to advertiser pressure to modify its editorial content. 

Turner expressed pride that consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whom several advertisers "have already complained about," has been signed as a commentator. "If they don't like Nader, that's tough," he said. 

Interestingly, Schonfeld said that FCC equal time rules do not apply to CNN because it is a 24-hour-per-day news operation, and that it is indefinite whether the FCC's fairness doctrine is binding or not. Both are rules designed to prevent broadcasters from presenting biased news and editorial coverage. Schonfeld assured the press audience that CNN's coverage would meet normal journalistic standards of fairness, nonetheless. Turner, who admits that he has no journalism background, said that he will tend to steer clear of editorial decision-making.

(The Los Angeles bureau of CNN was to have begun feeding stories and a 10-11 p.m. (PST) entertainment talk show into the network this week, but the bureau's TV cameras were stolen late last week. The bureau is now scrambling to obtain replacement cameras.) — Peter Warner, originally published on June 2, 1980. 

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