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 The Brancatelli File

joe UNSPORTSMAN-LIKE CONDUCT
AT CNN INTERNATIONAL


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

January 13, 1998 -- Now I don't admit this to just anyone, but since we meet like this every week, and we have each other's E-mail addresses, what the hell...

I am a life-long Cleveland Indians fan.

You sports fans need no further explanation. But, for you non-sports fans out there, be aware that the Indians haven't won baseball's World Series since 1948, five years before I was born. Being an Indians fan is like being a Whig. Being an Indians fan is sort of like being religious. You believe because you have faith.

Being an Indians fan and being an international business traveler is also grounds for copping an insanity plea. But, until that day comes, you travel the world doing your business by day. By night, you search for scraps of Indians news in Moscow, call SportsPhone from Seoul at $9-a-minute, go on-line from Hong Kong for the odd box score, scour the International Herald-Tribune in Frankfurt for three-day-old scores and work the remote in your hotel room trying to find a TV station that might run an Indians game recap.

Which brings us to CNN. Good old, reliable CNN. That all-American-news, all-the-American-time beacon of broadcast Americana that beams its Ameri-centric version of truth, justice and Indians scores to 850,000 hotel rooms in 100 countries and territories. CNN, the business traveler's lifeline to sports scores, endless OJ, Crossfire and all the other things we left behind.

Yeah, well, not anymore. The CNN we know and love no longer follows us wherever we go.

What's that you say? You were in Paris just last week and CNN was on your tube. You dialed it up in a Tokyo hotel room just last night.

Pay attention, fellow travelers. That's CNN International you're watching. And chances are you're gonna get cricket scores and soccer news and three-hour coverage of press conferences by Tariq Aziz long before you're gonna get a Cleveland Indians score or news from Baltimore or Minneapolis.

You say you've never heard of CNN International? Well, welcome to the brave new world of worldwide English-language television news. In this world, you're just some business traveler passing through, so please don't touch that dial while CNN International gives you highlights of Real Madrid's latest nil-nil soccer thriller versus Barcelona and CNNI anchor Riz Khan goes one-on-one for 15 minutes with the head of state of a country you didn't even know existed.

"CNN International is absolutely not a channel for the expat American or business traveler," admits Chris Cramer, the genial former BBC executive who is executive vice president of CNNI. "Expats and business travelers are an important part of our viewer base, but a minority. Most of our viewers have English as a second language."

If that bit of news comes as a shock to you, join the club. I didn't even realize CNN International was a substantially different product from CNN until I went searching for Cleveland scores last fall when the Indians made a thrilling--but, as always, futile--run at the World Series. All through the night in Frankfurt or Moscow or wherever, I'm monitoring CNNI in my hotel room and all they are giving me is English cricket scores--By the way, what the hell is "150 for two," anyway?--and news about junior British Cabinet ministers.

"I am absolutely acquainted with your complaint," says Cramer, "and I am utterly impressed with Americans' devotion to CNN, but CNN International has got to get closer to the viewers we serve. We have to do Europe news in Europe and Asia news for Asia."

In fact, explains Cramer, the old domestic CNN feed we've come to depend upon overseas hasn't been replaced by just one CNN International, but four. Each version of CNNI focuses on--and is broadcast from--a different part of the planet.

Cramer's regionalized CNN International product is being driven partly by competition--check into any major international hotel these days and your English-language television choices may include SkyNews, BBC World, Bloomberg Business News, StarNews, EuroNews and CNBC--and by the simple realization that most of his audience doesn't want American news or American attitudes.

"I am not in the business of exporting U.S. news," he says. "This is a hard business decision and I know this will piss people off. I hear from Americans all the time saying 'Where is my old CNN, the one I adored in 1987?' But my viewers want news about their lives and their part of the world."

In fact, very little of what we see on CNN now makes it to CNNI, which was launched in April, 1996. There's Larry King Live--Where would the world be without Larry schmoozing Bill Cosby?--and Elsa Klensch, the fashion doyenne. And Worldview, broadcast live around the world at 6 p.m. Eastern time, is also considered U.S. content. Most of the rest of CNN International's product is uniquely un-American.

"I even dropped Crossfire because it just didn't sit right with international viewers," Cramer says.

Still, Cramer insists that CNNI has not totally abandoned the U.S. business traveler, an audience that advertisers want to reach. U.S. news stories are packaged into a 15-minute broadcast called American Edition. Sponsored by American Airlines, it airs three times daily. And Cramer says U.S. sports scores are rolled on the screen after the international sports update at about 20 minutes after every hour.

Ted Turner, the quirky founder of CNN who retained control of the product even after the he sold the networks to Time-Warner, insists on U.S. sports, Cramer admits.

"I'm no fool, I like my job and Ted and I have had very articulate discussions about the international product," says Cramer, a 50-year-old Brit. "When Ted travels, he likes to see the U.S. product. He is my conscience overseas."

Of course, Turner also once owned the Atlanta Braves. So maybe that's why I can never find Cleveland Indians scores on CNN International.

This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.