Never underestimate the power of Cable Hair. How else to explain the longevity of Cable News Network, better known simply as CNN, which signed on for the first time 20 years ago today, broadcasting then (as it does now), all news, all the time.
While Peter Jennings, Dan Rather, Connie Chung and the other network news anchors have beamed into American living rooms with picture-perfect coifs, the wily news veterans employed by cable television's journalistic cornerstone sport Cable Hair.
You know the look (stiff, longish on the sides, just a little left of cool). These haircuts might not cut it on the big three networks, but they've served CNN well during two decades of round-the-clock coverage of history-making events (from the Iranian hostage crisis to Monica Lewinsky) and not quite history-making events (like that squirrel who could water ski, and Marlon Brando kissing Larry King on the lips).
Hair or not, these days it's hard to believe this powerhouse of cable TV journalism was started June 1, 1980, in the basement of a converted country club building.
Today, CNN is a key component of Ted Turner's ongoing media-empire merger with America Online, but back when Turner started the network, it was so low-budget that the anchors didn't have any TelePrompters.
According to legend, some of the anchors and reporters who joined up were initially paid $3.25 an hour, the minimum wage in those days. (Today, with the CNN News Group posting about $1 billion in revenues, we're betting they make at least twice that much.)
In those days, the snobs at ABC and CBS and NBC called it the "Chicken Noodle Network," and even the CNN staffers had their doubts that the 24-hour news format would work. Technical snafus didn't help, either.
"There were a lot of accidents, we were always tripping over ourselves," anchorman Lou Waters told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week. He recalled a broadcast wherein correspondent Daniel Schorr's pants caught fire when a light bulb exploded on the set. "He was on the air and said, 'Excuse me, I have to put out my pants,'" Waters said.
But then a funny thing happened: People started watching, particularly when not-so-funny things were happening (like the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the Persian Gulf War, the O.J. Simpson trial).
The proof's in the pudding, and in 1996, not one but two competing 24-hour news networks (MSNBC and the Fox News Network) were launched. So far, neither has duplicated CNN's reputation, though.
Why? Of course, it's the hair, stupid.