The Crises That Remade Television News
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because short-lived dramas can sometimes lead to long-running news programs.
When the first bombs exploded over Baghdad on Jan. 16, 1991, millions of Americans had a front-row seat. Or at least it felt like it, thanks to the Cable News Network (CNN) and the intrepid reporting of Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman, who provided the narration — from the ninth floor of a Baghdad hotel — for the incredible video footage lighting up living rooms around the world. One month later, Kuwait had been liberated and a young news channel once mocked as the “Chicken Noodle Network” was on its way to becoming a global news powerhouse.
Sometimes major news events don’t just shake up the world, they remake the landscape of news coverage itself. Every crisis has its opportunities, and some of the most successful programs and networks, from CNN to PBS NewsHour to ABC’s Nightline, got their big break thanks to how they responded when the big news broke.
CNN’s coup in the Iraqi desert remains the most memorable and effective grab in big-event journalism.
The era of modern news television really began with the JFK assassination in 1963, covered almost continuously by every major U.S. network for four days. Coverage of the Apollo moon landing in 1969 — drawing the largest live television audience in history — and the unfolding Vietnam War also helped turn television into the major source of news in America. The Watergate scandal also proved pivotal. “The live televised hearings of the Watergate proceedings,” says Bernard McCoy, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska, “captivated the American public, forced the resignation of a sitting U.S. president and sent the credibility of the press in America to new heights.”
The Senate’s Watergate hearings, beginning in May 1973, also introduced two men — Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer — to each other, and to millions of American households, launching public television news to another level. “Some nights we may be in competition with the late, late movie,” Lehrer said of PBS’ wall-to-wall coverage of the hearings, but “[w]e are doing this as an experiment, temporarily abandoning our ability to edit, to give you the whole story.” At the same time, the dynamic broadcast duo conceived a new 30-minute format devoted to a single news item, and two years later, The Robert MacNeil Report premiered on PBS, evolving into The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and eventually PBS NewsHour, which still airs today.
Later in that decade, on Nov. 8, 1979 — four days after American hostages had been taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — The Iran Crisis: America Held Hostage debuted on ABC, featuring a contributing reporter named Ted Koppel. A then-struggling player in the TV news game, ABC News and its president, Roone Arledge, were looking for an opportunity to do something new and compelling. “Roone had decided a long time before,” Koppel later told TVNewser, “that any time a big news story [broke], ABC News was going to do a special broadcast at 11:30 at night. And one day, it was his dream that there’d be a story that had such legs to it, that was so enduring, that he would actually be able to seize the time period.”
ABC did just that, rebranding the popular Hostage show as Nightline a few months later, with Koppel in the anchor’s chair. Nightline, with its in-depth reporting on complex news stories, was an immediate hit, and it has been the mainstay of ABC’s late-night lineup ever since.
But it was CNN’s coup in the Iraqi desert that remains the most memorable and effective grab in big-event journalism. “If this was surgical bombing,” Shaw famously observed after the Baghdad strikes, “I don’t like being this close to the operating table.” But thanks to a four-wire phone hookup and the capacity of its “Boys of Baghdad” to elude Iraqi authorities and often go without running water, electricity or a flushing toilet, CNN emerged as a go-to source for breaking stories, ushering in the era of 24-hour cable news coverage. (CNN and PBS are OZY Partners.)
Despite reporters’ heroics, it’s still the event itself that ultimately dictates the response, and the subsequent news landscape. “Water-skiing squirrels do not usher in news shows and personalities,” Craig Allen, a journalism professor at Arizona State University, tells OZY, “but assassinations, wars, environmental cataclysms, missions to the moon and matters that captivate and affect people. … [These] set all television news trends.”
Can such trends continue in the age of online, digital journalism when news consumption habits are changing and organizations as established as the BBC are rethinking old habits? Will the next big story be broken by social media? Surveillance drones? Wearable technology? Will television news still matter? The impact of big events will likely diminish in the future, says McCoy, “because the news media is more diluted, less well-funded, and has less time to devote to story coverage.”
Still, when Saddam Hussein first rolled into Kuwait in 1990, few could have imagined the tide of cable news television it would set loose. Perhaps somewhere else in the world, another crisis is about to break. When it does, what news beast, its broadcast hour come round at last, will emerge to reshape how the story gets told?