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The Gulf Station

Fueled by coverage of a prime-time Middle East war, CNN came into its own in 1991.

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It was a war like no other: the persian gulf war caught fire on prime-time TV, transfixing the public in January and February of 1991. And for Ted Turner’s 11-year-old 24-hour news network, it was a gold mine. Because the Iraqis allowed CNN to use a special communications line, the network’s ”boys of Baghdad” (Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett, and John Holliman) holed up in the al-Rashid Hotel on Jan. 17, giving exclusive live reports on the allied bombing of the enemy capital. After Shaw and Holliman left, Arnett stayed in Baghdad, the only Western TV journalist there throughout the war.

During the 43-day conflict, the network’s 24-hour-average viewership rose from 404,000 to 2.46 million households. Soon monitoring CNN became de rigueur in embassies around the world. But when the war ended, U.S. ratings crashed back down to prewar levels (although they would swell dramatically again during O.J. Simpson’s murder trial).

Now owned by Time Warner, CNN must vie with other 24-hour TV news sources — so execs are counting on such new talent as ABC alum Jeff Greenfield. New Yorker media maven Ken Auletta, meanwhile, says CNN ”should do serious stuff: Dare to tell people to eat their spinach and make a virtue of necessity.”