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This... Was CNN

Everything is cyclical. Long ago, NBC was the top network, and dominated the ratings. Then they took a precipitous tumble and ended up at rock-bottom, airing terrible material like Man from Atlantis. But in time, they came up with The Cosby Show and rode Cosby's free-form, plotless sitcom shindig back to the top of the heap.

Likewise, CBS News was once the bellwether of tough reporting; then it became a joke during the "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" period under producer Van Gordon Sauter; and now it's back at the front of the hard-news parade, at a time when NBC's Tom Brokaw is doing his entire newscast while standing in front of a blue-screen usually reserved for local news weather bunnies.

When CNN started, it was a joke: an all-news channel nobody would watch, the brainchild of hick businessman Ted Turner. A news network based in Atlanta, of all places? The home of... uh, Coke, some confederate flags, and a clutch of forgettable sports teams.

But times change. By the time the Gulf War broke out in 1991, Ted Turner was poised to become the King of News. During the Gulf War, CNN led the way -- and a news-hungry world knew CNN was where they could get the latest on events in the gulf, from Peter Arnett's reports from Baghdad to Wolf Blitzer's breathless reports from the Pentagon.

As someone who led a cable-free childhood, I never understood the concept of a 50-channel universe until the early '90s. About the time of the Gulf War, I stumbled on CNN and was hooked. I'd come home from my college classes, plop on the couch, turn on CNN and stare. When the other members of the household (also Vidiots) came in, they'd often do the same.

But like I said, empires rise and fall. And so it is with CNN.

Slowly, over the course of the years, CNN has begun to decline. And that decline has begun to speed up quite a bit in recent months.

The latest example of how CNN has lost its way has nothing to do with news and everything to do with marketing -- and that's certainly fitting. In times past, CNN would identify itself with a small blast of music and the Darth Vader tones of James Earl Jones announcing that "This... is CNN."

So imagine my shock when I turned on CNN the other day, heard that familiar CNN theme music, and suddenly saw the smiling won't-someone-give-me-a-job face of Shelley Long. "I'm watching you, CNN!" cried Shelley.

So this is what CNN has come to. A parade of celebrities -- mostly B- or C-list celebrities -- personally telling Mr. CNN that they've got their eye on him. Program MSNBC out of the TV, Martha! Tony Randall's watching CNN! Coming next: Sally Struthers with her arms around a gaggle of young third-world orphans, crying out, "Watch CNN? Sure, we all do!"

Of course this is all just a marketing gimmick, and a news media outlet's annoying marketing or advertising doesn't necessarily cross over to the editorial side. But in CNN's case, you've got to wonder. Remember the furor over how many CNN personalities popped up as featured players in major motion pictures in the past year, including apparently half the CNN payroll in the Jodie Foster sci-fi drama "Contact?"

So CNN anchors love being in the movies. Let's set that aside for a moment, and consider how the network covers the movies. One look at CNN's Showbiz Today will reveal that rather than bringing CNN's approach to news to the entertainment industry, Showbiz Today is no different from Entertainment Tonight, Extra, or any of the other moronic, fawning gossip-mills that populate the airwaves.

Just as with ET, every story on Showbiz Today must lead into the next with a clever transitional line, even when the stories are completely unrelated: "Jack Klugman may be recovering from throat cancer, but even Dr. Quincy would have a hard time declaring the world of zydeco music dead on arrival!"

Recently CNN introduced a new show, Impact, that's supposed to feature in-depth looks at stories of national interest. Sounds pretty hefty, right? No doubt that serious approach to the news is why Impact's lead story this week is about the runaway success of "Titanic."

Sure, CNN has always had its sleazy, stupid side -- and by that, I mean Crossfire. Five years ago, I enjoyed watching Crossfire, even though its insistence on argument for argument's sake could be tiresome. But back then, the main participants in Crossfire were the fiery and funny Pat Buchanan and the smart and arch Michael Kinsley. These days, we've got the likes of Geraldine Ferraro and Bill Press sitting in the crossfire, and the result is a lot like replacing the original Dukes of Hazzard with their bland cousins, Coy and Vance Duke. Sure, the format's the same, but the spell's been broken.

And of course there's Larry King, who can put on a great show when he's got a good guest, but who tosses softball questions with the best of them and often seems befuddled when he's interviewing anyone under 50. My personal favorite: his suck-up interview with the cast of Friends (a show he'd clearly never seen), in which he kept referring to actor Matthew Perry as "Mike."

But CNN's been piling on the bad programming choices lately, and -- as with a couple of bloody murders in Los Angeles -- we've got O.J. to blame. The latest entrant into CNN's parade of news-destroying shows is Burden of Proof, a show in which two stiff talking heads (Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren) depose a wall of lawyers about the news of the day. Call off the dogs -- I've officially found something more boring than watching grass grow. It's watching a pod of six lawyers ponderously discussing the finer points of Bill Clinton's sex life for the 50th straight day. This is CNN?

Sure, wedged in between People magazine gossip columnist Mitchell Fink's reports for Showbiz Today about Jodie Foster's pregnancy and Larry King's suck-up interview with Matt Lauer from the Today show, you might find some hard news from genuinely good reporters like Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour, and some thoughtful analysis from the likes of Jeff Greenfield. But the days of turning the TV to CNN and staying there... those days are over.

"I'm watching you, CNN!" cries out B.B. King from my TV screen. Good for you, B.B. But I'm not watching you, CNN.

At least, not until the cycle begins again.


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