BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Bad news is good news for all-news cable channels, especially for Atlanta-based CNN. On September 11th, viewers were glued to CNN. It had 7.7 million viewers that day compared to Fox's 4.4 million. That was a big turnaround for CNN.
BOB GARFIELD:When its parent company, Time Warner, was taken over by AOL this year, the pressure was on for CNN to outFox Fox. CNN added more shows where people talked about the news rather than report it; graphics got snazzier; and in another bid to improve ratings, CNN cut back on the amount of international news it presented to Americans.
But -- that was then. As for now, we go to Atlanta where Melinda Penkava prepared this report.
JOE ANGOTTI: It's unfortunate I guess to have to say that the war is good for anyone, but I would say that the war is good for CNN.
MELINDA PENKAVA:Joe Angotti is a former executive producer at NBC, and he says CNN's basic staple of solid news drew viewers back. Now teaching at Northwestern University, Angotti says that on September 11th CNN with its 30 bureaus overseas had a clear advantage over competitors.
JOE ANGOTTI: We began the process at NBC in the late '80s and the early '90s where one by one we sw-- we eliminated one foreign bureau after another, and while CNN was cutting back a little bit at that same time, they were not breaking down that infrastructure.
MELINDA PENKAVA: But until last month, CNN had been scaling back the number of international stories that it brought to viewers in the U.S., so how could CNN afford to keep all those bureaus running all around the world? Part of the answer lies here. [SEVERAL SPEAK AT ONCE] This is a control room at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, but the show being put together here is not seen in Atlanta or the U.S. This is CNN International. When you hear of travelers or foreign officials getting their news on CNN, it is more than likely this service that they're referring to.
CNN says that two-thirds of the 250 million households it reaches in English are outside the U.S. Stories that may play big in America -- say the saga of a Modesto Congressman --don't warrant as much air time on CNN's International Services. It's a much more diverse audience, and a news hole is filled by CNN's two and a half dozen bureaus overseas.
EASON JORDAN: CNN has to cover the world differently because our audience is not the United States only; our audience is the world.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Eason Jordan is vice president for news gathering at CNN. As events began unfolding last month, CNN had a leg up on the competition.
EASON JORDAN: It's not as if on September 11 there's this mad scramble to send people to Afghanistan. We're there! And that is a tremendous competitive advantage -- not just because we're there, but we're there with people who know the lay of the land, and so we're dealing with seasoned correspondents who really can report in an enlightened way.
It's not as if they're going to some country for the very first time and just sort of starting from scratch.
MELINDA PENKAVA:Competitors such as Fox which had been heavy on talk shows had no one in that part of the world, but two weeks into the story Fox did lure away a CNN correspondent in Afghanistan who had been working without a contract. While CNN has enjoyed a boost in the ratings, the money is not yet in the bank. CNN went almost 6 full days without advertising after the September 11th attacks. The network may be able to recoup that lost ad revenue by collecting higher prices from advertisers as it did by the end of the 2 and a half month long Gulf War, but spokesman Mark Harrad says that may not cover the increased expenses CNN will face in covering this war.
MAN: Your expenses for news gathering during a period like this is appreciably higher than it might normally be, and so even if there is a slight uptick in advertising revenue because of ratings, it's still not to say that all things would be a complete wash because your costs of news gathering are so much higher.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Even with bureaus already in place, Eason Jordan says CNN is laying out a hundred thousand dollars a day above what it usually would spend on reporting the news. The parent companies of other news networks also seemed to be sparing little expense -- for now. Joe Angotti expects a day of reckoning later on.
JOE ANGOTTI: They're going to have to make up for it someplace. No one's going to subsidize them any more as they used to in the old days when -- during the Vietnam War. The news divisions are on their own. They're losing money like crazy. They're going way over budget, and somehow it's going to have to be made up.
MELINDA PENKAVA: Aside from newsroom cutbacks, some networks might consider sharing costs. For years there have been discussions about CNN merging with CBS or ABC -- or the parent companies could view the expense of war coverage as an investment of sorts and not just in brand recognition. Tom Wasniel [sp?], a veteran of TV news and an industry analyst suggests we may one day hear the broadcast giants mentioning the losses they incurred in covering this war as they seek sympathetic ears in Washington for deregulation of their industry. For example Wasniel says, allowing mergers or ownership of more stations.
TOM WASNIEL: I think for AOL/Time Warner being able to point to what CNN does may help its efforts as it's looking for the ability perhaps to own television stations in the same market where they own the cable system, and I think that the efforts of these organizations in the news area will become one of the things that they point to in their lobbying efforts in Washington.
MELINDA PENKAVA: For now though, there's a war to cover. CNN made its name covering this kind of story, and Joe Angotti for one hopes the new AOL/Time Warner management takes heed.
JOE ANGOTTI: For a while there it seemed like the only thing that they thought could build an audience was hiring movie stars and doing a lot of flashy graphics. And I think they're discovering right now that nothing builds an audience more than providing good, solid news coverage of an important breaking news story.
MELINDA PENKAVA: But what happens after the breaking news story is over? Since September 11th CNN has featured hard news and new anchors including veterans Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown. It's up to viewers to decide whether that combination of hard news and new faces works in the long run. The challenge, as the head of CNN International wrote recently, is to take that which is important and make it interesting. For OTM I'm Melinda Penkava in Atlanta.