BY VERNE GAY To understand why a genuine historic moment in cable television arrived last Wednesday night, all one need do is remember 1991. It was a mild January night — mild in New York, anyway — when the whole world was as taut as a bowstring. Remember just one particular moment (6:45 p.m. on the East Coast) and you will realize that it is impossible to extricate that memory from just three letters: CNN. From that instant forward, the world of television changed, the world of information changed and even the world of Ted Turner changed. Ted, at the very least, would never again have to explain to anyone what this curious thing called a 24-hour cable news network was all about (even though it was about 10 years old), or whether this was just another grandiose vision of a man who seemed to have a particular fondness for grandiose visions. Twelve minutes, or 12 years after 6:45 on Jan. 16, 1991, the conclusion would be irrefutable: This 24-hour news network had just become the world’s most important TV news organization, which would ultimately affect the course of an entire industry. And so here we go again. There’s an easy temptation to assume this time will be the same as last. But this historic moment already has a different cast and hue. Those 12 years have passed, and CNN’s singular accomplishment in 1991 helped to carve an entirely different TV landscape, and one most notably where there is no longer just one mountain dominating the landscape but three — each facing its own risks, rewards and (ultimately) destiny. Hyperbole? Not if you consider that the first Gulf War catapulted CNN from relative obscurity to journalistic power and glory, and taking, by association, the rest of the cable industry with it. Now, Fox News and MSNBC have their eyes on the prize, too. Even if the war ends today or next week or a month from now, Fox, CNN and MSNBC will emerge as different institutions. But what kinds of institutions will they become? There’s a whole grab bag of possibilities and what-ifs here. What if Fox, with a vastly smaller deployment in the field than either CNN or NBC News, wins in the ratings war? Will that give the bean counters at an AOL Time Warner or General Electric the idea that there is no direct correlation between vast news resources and higher ratings, and that therefore these resources should be cut? That happened to CBS News and ABC News in the immediate wake of the first Gulf War. Neither organization ever fully recovered. What happens in the event Fox finds itself a ratings loser? Could that spur Roger Ailes to significantly boost worldwide news gathering resources for future stories? Probably not, but Ailes has long recognized that his Achilles’ heel is international news coverage. Will viewers detect significant holes in Fox News coverage of this war as the days proceed, or — if so — will they care? For CNN, the stakes are vast. It is using this war to reestablish its street credentials, so to speak, as the world’s leading TV news organization. Any shortcoming on that front will be magnified greatly. It’s not fair, perhaps, but impressions right at this moment are paramount, and CNN must give the impression that it is back on track. What about poor beleaguered MSNBC? Clearly, NBC’s immediate goal is to erase the words “poor” and “beleaguered” when the subject of its troubled news network comes up. Last week MSNBC initiated its most aggressive use of NBC News resources in six years, even surpassing Sept. 11 and its aftermath. If successful, could this then portend yet another content overhaul at a network that goes about such overhauls on a near-weekly basis? What would that then mean for the “new conservative” MSNBC and its new offensive front line comprised of Joe Scarborough, Jesse Ventura, Michael Savage, among others — all of whom have as much in common with NBC News as a flea with a flounder? Befuddled viewers, advertisers and cable operators will just have to wait and see. And so here we go again. The differences between 1991 and 2003 are, of course, obvious even if the symbolism remains the same. Foremost, there is an array of information sources, which did not exist in 1991. That has instantly erased CNN’s advantage that was so crucial to its success during the opening hours of the first Gulf War. Another leveling factor: CNN and MSNBC had access to correspondents live from Baghdad within seconds after the first cruise missiles struck the Iraqi capital. (Fox News would use a live video feed from Sky News within an hour or so.) CNN quickly had Nic Robertson by phone, while seasoned war dog Peter Arnett was first out with the news of the bombing for both NBC and MSNBC. The three major cable networks acquitted themselves well in the opening moments of Thursday’s war — the most vital moments in any coverage of this sort because it instantly reveals the cracks or crevasses in a news division’s planning (or budget). Example: ABC News was caught completely flat-footed because it was reluctant to dump out of an edition of The Bachelor. Indeed, MSNBC appeared to be most aggressive, but that was only to those keeping count. If this was a horse race, all three started fast and were nose to nose by the first turn, thanks in part to the fact that they had access to live pool footage from the roof of Baghdad’s ministry of information. But this is not a horse race. It is really more of a sprint. How will the destinies of the cable news networks be shaped in the days and weeks ahead? Fox News, of the three majors, is the easiest call. The war will end and the hard-core viewers will return. They will perhaps never go away — a reason why FNC could end up with the highest numbers among the three. Fox will remain top dog, regardless of performance in the field of battle coverage, simply because viewers — better described here as “fans” — rely on this network in large measure because it is not beholden to the news. There is no paradox here. Fox fans long ago came to the conclusion that “news” on other networks like CNN, CBS or ABC masked liberal ideologies, or fronted for them. They may be wrong, but it would be futile to try and convince them otherwise. Nevertheless, Fox — and anchor Shepard Smith — did a competent job covering the opening hours of Gulf War II, and while its coverage did not look nearly as deep as MSNBC’s or CNN’s, it was certainly solid. Fox took a gamble by deciding to spend a fraction of what CNN is shelling out on its total coverage package (it deployed 13 correspondents throughout the entire Middle East, while the total number of CNN personnel was just under 200). Unless Fox bobbles coverage badly as the war grows in size and complexity, the gamble will pay off. And if it does bobble, that could feed an impression that CNN remains the place to go for hard news. Not good for Ailes and Co. Since Thursday, MSNBC and, to a lesser degree, CNBC, have also demonstrated their true worth to the NBC kingdom — as amortization plays. When both were founded, the word “amortization” was invoked almost in a messianic way. CNBC, of course, long ago secured its own place in the kingdom with its own staff and its own reason for being. Not so MSNBC: A primary goal was to assign some of the vast NBC news gathering costs to MSNBC’s balance sheet. This has certainly worked according to plan over the last six years, but it’s also contributed to MSNBC’s longstanding image crisis. The network has lurched jarringly from one new format to the next, never able to find a role in a world dominated by Fox and CNN. Is it a news network or a talk network or both? MSNBC has never been able to figure this one out. So is the answer finally at hand? Almost certainly not. Over the last few days, MSNBC has proved for the most part that NBC News is alive and well but not necessarily that MSNBC’s future is alive and well. Among many chores, NBC has used its cable sibling to flaunt Brian Williams; his ascension to NBC Nightly News is now a year away, and he needs all the exposure he can get. It has also used MSNBC to front reports by its correspondents scattered throughout the region. The last time anyone looked, none of them — certainly not Williams — has a talk show scheduled on MSNBC when this war ends. A smattering of lesser-known commentators and a former governor of Minnesota do, but MSNBC had also hoped to launch Phil Donahue’s show (and others) after the viewing spike the network got in the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. That didn’t work. So now what? Finally, there is CNN. The war begins at a critical juncture in CNN’s history. In January, CNN veteran Jim Walton was named chairman of the CNN News Group while Phil Kent — another vet and Turner acolyte — has taken over from TBS chief Jamie Kellner. These men have one immediate mission: to reestablish CNN. Walton has given indications that he treasures CNN’s legacy while the key to the future lies in the past. He wants to return CNN to its roots. He wants to bring hard news back to the network. This is his moment. There is an immediate challenge, though. In an interview last week, Gail Evans, the veteran CNN executive who is now an author, explained, “The war in a sense is a trap [for CNN] because the expectations are so high. How does CNN re-create what happened in Baghdad 12 years ago? Clearly, it can’t do so if they don’t do something that is beyond spectacular. Then do they lose?…Believe me, everyone is out there feeding the CNN expectation story, and not CNN, but its competition.” “I’ve spoken to [Walton] at some length, and I think he’s got a keen sense of the moment, both from the vantage point of news and that he knows you can’t wave a magic wand over everything and make things change,” said Frank Sesno, CNN’s longtime Washington bureau chief and now an independent producer. “He understands that if CNN is true to its heritage, then that’s where the payoff lies [and] he understands that you cannot and should not lurch from one side of the ship to the other, or you’re likely to capsize.” Now, on to the future. Tom Johnson, CNN chairman for more than a decade who (along with Eason Jordan) orchestrated CNN’s coverage of the first Gulf War and then struggled — futilely — to erase postwar ratings peaks and valleys, remembers well. “It was very frustrating,” he said from his home in Atlanta last week. “CNN has always been cyclical, and I predict future ratings will continue to be cyclical. I also believe that Jim comes more out of the tradition of those of us who really felt that CNN’s core mission was hard news.” Regardless of who emerges as winner of the race to cover the second Gulf War, more eyeballs will be glued to cable news this time around. Someday, some bright advertising type is going to figure out that the people who are watching cable news are smarter, richer and generally more important to car makers, credit card companies, airlines, investment houses and even purveyors of popular culture than those who are watching The Bachelor. In that sense, it does not matter which of the nets takes the ratings race, because it will be cable itself that wins.