Cable News Is a Third of a Century Old

This Saturday marks one-third of a century since CNN debuted as the world's first 24-hour news channel in 1980 (if you're looking to get them a gift, the traditional 33rd anniversary gift is amethyst). Prospect intern/sleuth Eric Garcia came across this video of the network's first hour on the air, which begins with Ted Turner giving a speech about the new era of global understanding they're launching. He makes special note of the fact that he's standing under three flags: the U.S. flag, the Georgia flag (its old confederate version, which was adopted in 1956 as a protest to Brown v. Board of Education or to honor the nobility of the Confederacy, depending on your perspective), and ... the flag of the United Nations! Cue conservative spit takes.

Back in those days, of course, the UN was considered a well-intentioned if often ineffectual organization, and not a sinister black helicopter-wielding global conspiracy to take your guns and impose a one-world government with George Soros as Supreme Ruler (and the UN was a particular cause of Turner's; he later gave the organization a billion dollars). But let's take a look at the video; once you get past Turner's speech, it doesn't look much different from what cable news remains today, apart from the fact that the anchors are reading off of actual papers on the desks in front of them and not off teleprompters (go to the eight-minute mark):

At the time, the idea of a 24-hour news channel was radical, and it took a while to catch on. CNN didn't come into its own until 11 years later when the first Gulf War began. At that point, Americans finally decided that when something important was happening, the way to find out about it was to turn on cable news. And we still believe that to a degree, but the problem is that the times when things are happening turn out to be rather few and far between. There are 8,760 hours in a year, and only so many of them are going to feature dramatic jury verdicts and bombing aftermaths.

This is the dilemma CNN has struggled with for years. They want to be primarily known as a newsgathering operation that is the place you go when something important happens. But they still haven't found a way to attract viewers when there isn't something important happening. And nobody thinks Piers Morgan is the answer.

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