CNN introduced the first Jefferson Han-designed, multi-touch screen. When Fox News and ABC News added “magic walls” to their coverage, CNN snapped up a second unit. Mobile control room? Check. YouTube collaboration? Yes, sir. SkyCam? Did it in Denver. Audience reaction meters? Indeed.
The fireworks display hit a crescendo on election night when Wolf Blitzer interviewed a hologram of musician will.i.am (who somewhere along the campaign trail seemed to become a part of the CNN brand), touching off a frenzy of Star Wars references, journalism school hand-wringing and nerdy explanations about why the 3-D digitally composite images shot from 35 HD cameras simultaneously was not (NOT!) actually a hologram.
“When you have the wind at your back in the form of a very profitable streak, then you’ve got the wherewithal to try things, to embrace innovation, to not cringe,” Mr. Klein told The Observer on Monday morning.
If it had taken place, say, 20 years ago, the spectacle of CNN’s 2008 shopping spree might have blended into the cacophonous jangle of a city awash in media companies awash in cash. But these days, everywhere you turn, the once reliable bon vivant institutions of New York journalism look tired, anxious and ready for bed. ABC News recently relegated its executives to “B-level” hotels. This year, for the first time since the dawn of the printed word, Condé Nast is forgoing its holiday party at the Four Seasons. Cash bars are in.
All of which makes CNN’s current swagger, from its battery of technology to its cornucopia of talking heads, seem that much more freakish—the aberrance of opulence in the leanest of times. Over the past year, CNN has racked up double-digit profit growth for the fifth straight year. Time Warner does not officially break out the numbers for CNN. But according to data from industry analysts SNL Kagan, in 2008, CNN brought in more than $1.1 billion in total revenue.
To be sure, 2008 has been a boom year for all the major cable news networks. While profits at their parent companies have faltered, Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC have all reportedly piled up big gains. And across the media landscape, there are other big players who are expanding, from Bloomberg News to Reuters to the BBC. But, for the most part, they are doing so relatively quietly.
And whereas, say, MSNBC is tied to the sinking fortunes of a broadcast news division, CNN is free to reinvest its bounty back into its news coverage and into … well … whatever else seems appealing. Recent splurges have included building a new international hub in Abu Dhabi; planning a wire service that could eventually compete with the Associated Press; and kicking off a weekend comedy-news show hosted by comedian D. L. Hughley. [Update, November 19, 11:33 a.m.: CNN’s wire service is still in development.]
At times, it seems like CNN’s guiding philosophy is, why the hell not?
When asked about expenditures, CNN Worldwide’s president, Jim Walton, has been known to downplay the company’s appetites, saying that whenever CNN adds, it also subtracts. Likewise, Mr. Klein assured The Observer that judiciousness is the prevailing approach.
“When you know that you have the resources, it liberates the creative side,” said Mr. Klein. “We’ve been smart about deploying the vast resources that we have at our disposal. But knowing that we have the profits to plow back into the coverage gives us an immense advantage. We can afford more people on our air and off our air. So, goddamn it, we’re going to have more people.”