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What is missed is that CNN is more than one domestic network with a primetime. So, while one part of our business, CNN/U.S. primetime, is having some challenges, the overall global business is doing better than fine.
President CNN Worldwide
Perfection, as exemplified by short-term earnings optimization, has always been the enemy of what’s good for long-term survival in business. In television news, where journalistic excellence once thrived, the need to make money has prostituted news broadcasting through the systematic debasement of journalistic standards for entertainment values. Neither today’s fake news content nor prostitution are new. What is new is the prostitution of the public’s right to know for the benefit of broadcast executives in the exact same ways today’s new-era bankers prostituted banking to the detriment of depositors and taxpayers alike.
If one extends the trend in broadcast news, both network and cable, over the last ten years, it suggests that before long there will be no news content at all on newscasts or cable news programming. It’s just not profitable enough — especially when you have to compete with other news outlets who pander whatever has the largest public appeal as if news content when it fails even the most generous test for journalistic merit.
Ultimately the human animal is driven by sexual, not intellectual needs — leading one to surmise that eventually all news broadcasts will have to include substantial, of not entirely, pornographic content. Absent such content, in the free-for-all smorgasbord loosely called The Internet, suggests that television news may not be able to effectively compete with all the pornographic varieties afforded by international purveyors of prurient content.
One cable news operation appears to see the handwriting on the wall for it is now clear that CNN is at just such an inflexion point. Shall it be defined by its television marketing activities or by its immense world-wide news gathering and reporting activities?
If you wonder if anyone outside of CNN sees the company as only a television advertising vessel, you best read what’s being said by the nation’s principal print media. The industry trade press, Broadcasting and Cable, sees CNN’s inflexion point in terms of brand value and complexity. Not everyone views such issues as narrowly as The New York Times, or as complex as does B&C.
One such man is Ted Turner – founder of Atlanta based Cable News Network ( CNN ). Men like Turner are driven by strong entrepreneurial tendencies that drives them to create new enterprises fashioned from the clarity of their own vision, driven by their powerful competitive nature, and inspired by purpose beyond short term profit. Being profitable and competitive has always been Turner’s motivation — but men of his caliber know that serving a market need is what grows and sustains any enterprise, not short-term exploitation.
Men like Turner differ substantially from today’s managerial minions — people who have been wrongfully trained to regard enterprise only for its short-term profit potential, in that he understands that long range business survival depends on serving the needs of all stakeholders.
Entrepreneurs like Ted Turner are highly motivated to succeed, driven to achieve profitability, and highly determine to succeed. Entrepreneurs typically take substantial personal risk in launching a new enterprise. In the case of CNN it was to move television news from appointment programming status to full-time availability. Turner might well have been equally successful had he invested similar economic and intellectual resources to some other part of his Atlanta based media empire.
Even the fact that his purpose was to make a profit and increase his personal wealth and power, CNN was not launched for its immediate profitability, but to create and dominate an entirely new news media. Managerial minions don’t think in such clear terms, or take risks for which answers are not well known and researched. Nor do managerial minions risk ongoing earnings streams, let alone fundamental capital or existing equity base.
It’s unusual for visionary entrepreneurs to keep total control of their enterprise — usually because of decisions to involve others, go public, or to too early formalize their own wealth. For Turner it was his clearly foolish decision to become part of Time-Warner — a company fully in control of managerial minions, or like Steve Jobs when he agreed, equally foolishly, that Apple Computer would be better run by an experienced marketing executive like Pepsi’s John Sculley.
What Turner and Jobs share is entrepreneurial wisdom — that enterprises are created and managed for a clear and worthy business purpose which has inherent profit potential. Managerial minions, most of whom are intellectually handicapped by the MBA Think bubble, see the enterprise as an object in need of optimization absent any other purpose beyond earnings generation.
CNN, like Apple, came into existence to fill a fundamental societal, economic and public service void. What’s different about today’s Apple and CNN is that one of them has moved on to immense economic success by fulfilling its original societal, economic and public service missions while CNN has seen powerful competitors enter its market space and drive its managerial minions to try to compete with the competition — just as John Sculley had at Apple.
As a direct result, CNN finds itself at a critical inflexion point — caught up in the pretend news bubble in its television operations while still living off the fruits of its immense world-wide news gathering and reporting activities. Thus CNN is face to face with its own split personality — the television news bubble game in which it became embroiled by systematically moving its U.S. television operation away from Ted Turner’s heritage of journalistic breadth and reach so that it might compete for audience with non-strategic players MSNBC and FOX News Channel.
For two decades the cable news business has eroded from credible, relevant and probative news content to infotainment. Today’s CNN has sought to be competitive with other cable news operations. In the doing, it has effectively ceded the definition of cable news to those absent either its rich history or its immensely rich international news collection and reporting assets.
What changed when Ted Turner was separated from CNN was clarity of vision about its purpose and mission. CNN pioneered cable news for its journalistic potential, not its most efficient use of spectrum space to generate earnings. When the competitors moved into the cable news market they sought to differentiate themselves by programming for ratings revenue. CNN joined in the game with programs like Crossfire and Larry King whose purpose was to add conflict, drama and celebrity to its North American prime time programming.
News programming is not the most profitable use of television media at times when audiences want to be entertained. So, as competitors moved further and further from legitimate news content and toward what’s more popular with viewers, CNN sold out its birthright to be competitive with what were, and remain, largely 2nd rate news and information gathering and reporting operations.
Jim Walton has many of Ted Turner’s qualities, but sad to say, neither his visionary verve, or his decision making power. Whether he will seize the day, as did Steve Jobs, or cede his worldwide journalism resources to whatever Roger Ailes thinks will be most profitable for FOX remains to be seen.
Both the long term survival of CNN, and the American experiment in democracy, may well depend on his decision. And, from what we’ve seen, we are among the few who believe he is fully up to the challenge.