The gulf war signals a changing of the guard in television news: The Big Three networks are on the decline, while CNN is the new king of the hill.
Actually, this is nothing new. Although relatively unnoticed, the Cable News Network overtook ABC, CBS and NBC some time ago. It just took a crisis on the scale of a war with Iraq to make that fact vividly clear.There's no question that CNN has been the place to turn for breaking news of the crisis since Wednesday. Ted Turner's crew may not always have been first, but they've been right on top of all the developments and have provided the most complete coverage.
And, why not? The other networks provide 24-hour-a-day news only during a crisis. At CNN, it's an everyday job.
Even local stations have taken notice. Several ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates across the country have dumped their regular network coverage in favor of CNN.
Locally, KSL-TV has bounced back and forth between CBS and CNN - a practice I find annoying. I'd prefer to do my own channel hopping and have KSL stick with one or the other. And KXIV-Ch. 14 showed great foresight by signing a contract to carry CNN within an hour of the outbreak of hostilities.
CNN's biggest coup to date - reporting live by telephone from Baghdad the night the bombing began - came because the all-news network had something called a "No. 4 wire." It turns out that a "No. 4 wire" is a private, dedicated phone line that doesn't go through the switching system of a standard telephone system.
ABC, CBS and NBC had also requested permission to install such a device in Baghdad, but only CNN got the go-ahead. And it would appear that CNN received permission because of a reputation that even the Iraqis' respected.
Let's not forget that the Big Three networks are strictly domestic operations. Their broadcasts are intended for American audiences only. CNN, on the other had, is seen in 103 countries around the world - including much of the Middle East.
All three major networks have made headlines in recent years by cutting back their news divisions. The simple fact is that, in the television world of the 1990s, a major commercial network cannot afford to be in the news business the way it used to be.
Networks are't turning big profits anymore. They're cutting back in most areas. And ABC, CBS and NBC have to devote the majority of their budgets to prime-time programming, soap operas, game shows and talk shows, leaving less to spend on the news divisions.
CNN, meanwhile, spends all of its money on news. And that investment has paid off.
Derisively referred to as "Chicken Noodle News" when it premiered just over 10 years ago, CNN has made hash out of the Big Three.