Networks Build News Empires
AS Ted Turner prowls the globe looking for partners with pockets deep enough to help finance his dogged quest for CBS, the network - already betrothed to Westinghouse - looks on anxiously and says nothing. But pundits have plenty of ideas about a CNN-CBS marriage, particularly what it would mean for both companies' news operations as networks race to grab a share of the global media market. ''It would be a powerful marriage, because CNN is all over the world and CBS still has moments of greatness,'' says Marvin Kalb, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Barone Center. ''CNN could use the remaining stars in CBS's cosmology, and CBS could use the technology that CNN has at its disposal all over the world.'' Although Westinghouse has made its intentions clear with its $5.4 billion bid to buy CBS, Mr. Turner is apparently determined to outbid it. If he succeeds, it would also catapult CBS from the back of the network pack in international news investments, to the front lines of an increasingly competitive international race that is transforming news around the world. (See chart.) Ten years ago, when Ted Turner started CNN International (CNNI), it was a pie-in-the-sky idea, greeted with the same disdain the networks showed for the beginning of CNN's domestic news service. (In newsrooms across the country, CNN stood for ''Chicken Noodle News.'') CNNI now embraces the globe, broadcasting from 13 satellites to virtually every populated land mass in the world. Once a notorious loss leader, last year it had an operating profit of $66 million. Other networks have watched. And they have followed. ABC and NBC have aggressively gone into the international market, buying cable channels, investing in broadcast outlets, and starting international broadcast services of their own. CBS has been more cautious, although it's aggressively selling its domestic news programs overseas. News Corporation, the Australian conglomerate that owns FOX TV, has pursued Asian markets with its Star TV satellite. In Britain, its BSkyB satellite reaches some 4 million homes. ''Those markets, both for programming and for advertising, are beginning ... the kinds of growth that American markets saw 20 years ago,'' says Richard Wald, senior vice president of ABC News, which has invested large stakes in several European and Asian broadcast and production companies. ABC also owns 80 percent of Worldwide Television News, an international satellite news service based in London. Capital Cities/ABC's ESPN sports channel reaches about 90 million homes in 150 countries. NBC owns a majority stake in Europe's Super Channel, the continent's largest general programming service, which is available in 32 countries and reaches more than 65 million homes. Among other things, Super Channel carries the ''Today'' show, ''The NBC Nightly News,'' and programs produced by CNBC. The network plans to expand Super Channel into Asia, where it's already in the process of launching CNBC Asia, hoping to replicate the consumer- and business-news channel's success in the United States. Over the weekend, NBC said it would launch a CNBC business channel in Europe next year. ''We all recognize there are unexplored frontiers elsewhere in the world,'' says Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News. ''We feel we can bring our expertise in TV to those areas, and in time it should also be a good business proposition.'' For American viewers, the rush to ''go global'' has its up and down sides. Potentially, it could improve international coverage. During the 1980s, all the networks drastically cut back or eliminated most foreign bureaus, diminishing the quality and quantity of foreign news on their nightly newscasts. To make up for the loss, the networks entered into production agreements with overseas news organizations, signed on with international video news services, and began to rely much more on freelancers. ''It's unfortunate that it's necessary, but the alternative was no coverage,'' says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. ''I think all the networks would prefer to have correspondents on the ground everywhere.'' Mr. Wheatley and others now say the demand to service international viewers in addition to the domestic audience will prompt the networks to reinvest in foreign bureaus, thus improving the quality of international reporting. But serving an international viewership is quite different from reporting for home. ''When you're targeting an audience, whether it's the BBC or the networks, you use frames of references that are suitable to those audiences,'' says Peter Vesey, the vice president for CNN International. ''In our venue [international news], there is no such thing as a frame of reference: Everyone is a potential stranger ... so the perspective must be broader.'' Mr. Vesey doesn't mind CNNI being described as ''rather dull,'' because CNNI is targeting serious viewers of international news. But others say that if all the networks go the international route, American news shows will become more bland and homogenized. ''It becomes a kind of Esperanto news coverage,'' says Larry Grossman, the former president of NBC News, referring to the artificial international language that has never taken hold. Mr. Grossman also worries that as more and more news operations merge there will ultimately be less and less competition. ''The raw material for news, and increasingly it's raw material that gets on the air, is coming from fewer and fewer sources,'' Grossman says. ''So the great paradox is [that] while we have more and more global outlets and sophistication and technology, it's all increasingly hanging on a single pipeline.'' There is also a question of how big a niche exists for international news, which the networks - even CNN - still offer overseas mostly in English. ''The technology is very deceptive; it suggests you can reach a billion people,'' Mr. Kalb says. But ''of that billion people, how many have the sets, satellites, or the time to watch? What you find is a very small percentage that's tuned in, and most of them want to watch a program that's ... in their own language.'' ''I think there's still a strong preference in the world for news about [one's] own political system,'' says Tom Patterson, professor of political science at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. ''I think people will choose their own local news because they're more interested in and comfortable with their news closer to home.'' CNNI views itself as a companion to local news operations. Vesey and others question whether there's room for more than one such international news service, particularly in English. So NBC appears to be banking on its CNBC becoming the international, English-language business channel. Capital Cities/ABC appears to be content to invest in other broadcast companies abroad and leave its international channelmaking to ESPN. And CBS? If Turner succeeds, it may become one of the most powerful international news operations in the world, overnight.