The CNN You’re Nostalgic For Isn’t Coming Back

In the media business, on social media and among news consumers, every week seems to bring more conversation about the future of CNN.

Is there life for a cable news channel (or at least what passes for one today) in “the middle?” Who will be the personalities who will drive it, now that everything in that medium has been personality-driven for so long, it would be unrecognizable any other way.

The answers inherently tricky for executives to figure out, in the midst of a changing business and a country in flux, some of that driven by profitable strategies by CNN’s competition that leads to political action and the formation of public opinion. As we have written before, cable “news” is actually a niche product and, as traditional cable continues to lose households, an older and smaller one.

One thing to forget about is that CNN won’t transform into its late 1980s or early 1990s self.

Once upon a time, CNN was indeed the best brand in news. Local stations that subscribed to its video service, which was not market-exclusive, bragged about the affiliation to viewers, even putting the CNN logo in monitors on-set. That’s because CNN was valuable to its audience as a credible place to get information and see what was happening.

Another thing made CNN resonate with news viewers in the ’80s and ’90s. It truly was national, yet it felt grounded. It was headquartered outside of New York City, in Atlanta. It had coverage relationships in every market in the country, with bureaus in major news centers. It also felt global, with international bureaus, partnerships and even a full-time U.N. correspondent. All of us who were around then remember the Gulf War coverage, but day-to-day, CNN lived up to its promise as a full-service, full-time news operation, that included a nightly sportscast that competed favorably at 11 pm Eastern with ESPN and “Showbiz” coverage that rivaled “Entertainment Tonight.”

But that was a long time ago.

Things began to drift during the O.J. Simpson trial, when live coverage of the courtroom was more enticing to management than doing newscasts (some would argue the drift started five years earlier, when Texas state judge Catherine Crier, with no news experience, was hired as a Prime Time anchor). Around the same time, in 1995, founder and entrepreneur Ted Turner sold his networks to Time Warner, a conglomerate born of combining a magazine business with a movie and TV entertainment studio, in an effort to win over Wall Street. Then, just five years later, when Time Warner merged with Internet pioneer AOL, the bureaus closed, the seat of power moved to New York once and for all and CNN, despite significant relevance with its website, began to change into something much different.

Fast forward 20 years, to the 2020 election season, and you had one faction of would-be viewers accusing CNN of being “fake news” and another faction of actual viewers watching because they “agree” with the hosts. This was just four years after CNN Chief and former NBC Prime Time head and “The Apprentice” overseer took the OJ trial approach to Trump campaign appearances. Yes, a mess, albeit profitable all along. Now, there’s new ownership after yet another combination, with Discovery Networks after a spin-off from AT&T. It’s important to remember, even thought you wouldn’t know it from just watching, that CNN has been part of a big corporate portfolio for more than a generation.

No, we didn’t watch CNN because we agreed with Bernard Shaw or Bobbie Battista or any of the capable anchors or correspondents from CNN’s long-ago heyday. We watched because it was worth our time and left us better informed than when we turned on the TV. Maybe we’ll have some elements of that? Maybe CNN wants to evolve toward something more valuable, even just for those of us 50+? Whatever it will be, it may be different from earlier this year. But it won’t, and just can’t, be what it once was.