Another day another presentation for creative director Philip Morris.

Philip is holed up in a luxury hotel suite, sweating the details for a major strategy presentation to the new chairman and chief executive officer of CNN.

“CNN” is a short story about the future of news media in a world where media disruption is accelerating.

Can Philip’s ideas save CNN?

Or is it too late?

3,000 words / 12 minutes of spectacular reading pleasure

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‘News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress. All the rest is advertising.’ Lord Northcliffe 



Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti
All Rights Reserved

Heavy blackout curtains are drawn across the tall floor-to-ceiling windows in a spacious hotel suite.

One lamp on a side table is on, edging a warm glow over the living area. PHILIP MORRIS, 33, wears mirrored Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses and is pacing with an open laptop in one hand, clicking through a presentation, rehearsing his lines.

The suite is on one of the upper floors at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. All faux understated luxury in muted greys and blues. A giant television screen silently plays CNN, one earnest well-groomed talking head after another in front of high-key graphics and behind the headlines sliding in on the white lower third.   

Philip had requested a suite on a lower floor to no avail. This is his first time in Atlanta for a two-hour presentation to Mark Thompson, the new chairman, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of CNN. As a creative director with the Stigmata Partners agency, Philip isn’t here to do the usual song and dance, the usual creative presentation for an advertising campaign.

It’s going to take more than a few ads to save CNN. The merger of its parent company WarnerMedia with Discovery and subsequent executive cluster fuck left the network out in the cold. Jeff Zucker was turfed from the top spot after sexual misconduct. His replacement Chris Licht managed to alienate viewers, staff and advertisers, sinking ratings and reach to all-time lows across every media and metric. A fuck up so monumental the current head of Warner Bros. Discovery sacked him in less than a year. (After privately threatening to shoot him in the face if his own stock options dropped another point.)  

Now David has brought in Mark Thompson to save the day, save the ailing network. Mark had most recently saved The New York Times where as president and chief executive officer he transformed the one-hundred-and-seventy-year-old print news stalwart into an unrivalled digital news brand. Mainly by applying everything he’d learned and pioneered in television at Channel 4 and BBC in the UK. He turned all the news that’s fit to print into all the news that’s fit to mint. While changing the economic news model by lifting digital subscriber numbers into the millions and setting industry records.

David wants Mark to reinvent the economics of cable news. Mark knows the task ahead is even greater than reviving The New York Times. He’s spent the last few months visiting CNN offices and production centres around the world, getting up to speed.

Atlanta is the spiritual home of CNN, home to the former international headquarters at the old CNN Center in a hulking multi-story downtown complex. Ted Turner had chosen the landmark building after the initial success of the world’s first twenty-four-hour news broadcaster.

Ted’s father, Ed Turner, had originally moved the family from Cincinnati to Atlanta when he bought a billboard advertising business. Then another. Then another. Then three more.

Ed Turner was an angry, disillusioned and domineering father. He would often fly into drunken rages, whipping at his son with an uncoiled wire coat hanger, yelling how much it hurt him to beat his own son.

Ted was sent to military schools and finally Brown University where he replaced every wire coat hanger in his dormitory wardrobe with cedar hangers and had the university bill his father. When his father discovered Ted was studying the classics as a major, he wrote a dismissive letter, threatening to disown him. Ted reprinted the letter in the university newspaper.      

Ed Turner kept buying billboard advertising businesses until he overextended and put a pistol to his head and blew his brains out. Ted was twenty-four when he took over the advertising business and kept it growing and diversifying until he started buying and stringing together loss-making local television stations that eventually gave birth to CNN.

Mark’s own father died when Mark was twelve after suffering from years of chronic illness and depression. Sooner or later, we all become orphans.

There’s a muffled knock on the main door of the hotel suite. Philip steps over and opens the soundproof door. His new assistant, LIN LEE, 23, hurries in.

‘Mister Thompson's assistant just texted to say he’s downstairs in the lobby and ready to meet.’

Lin’s dressed all in black. Wide black pants, wide black top, wide black glasses. Philip is stunned.

‘He’s an hour early.’

Lin picks up and taps a remote to open the curtains. Atalanta’s skyline spreads into view as sunshine beams in. Sam doesn’t look at the view.

‘And his assistant says Mister Thompson has to cut the meeting time to fifteen minutes.

Philip blinks.

‘I can't do a thirty-eight-slide presentation in fifteen minutes.’

Lin smooths out the sofa, fluffs up the cushions, puts the phone handset back in its cradle. Spots three dirty bowls and spoons on the dining table.

Philip is furiously deleting and rearranging slides in his presentation, trying not to panic.

Lin scoops up the bowls and spoons.

‘Did you have a friend over or did you just really like the vanilla bean crème brûlée?

‘I was hungry.’

‘That’s a lot of sugar.’

‘Lin, that’s the least of my problems.’

‘Why do you think you ordered so much crème brûlée?’

Philip looks at her, tilts his head. Lin looks away.

‘Sorry. I ask too many questions when I’m anxious.’

Philip isn’t sure how to respond. Like most of her generation, Philip presumes she treats her social anxiety and attention deficit disorder with piles of pharmaceuticals washed down with however many glasses of water she needs a day to stay hydrated. (When Philip was in his twenties, it was six glasses a day. He’s pretty sure it’s now up to between eight and ten glasses a day.)

‘I ordered two serves of the orange blossom sorbet,’ Lin says without looking up.

She moves towards the bedroom door, balancing the bowls and spoons.

‘I’ll just put these in the ensuite.’

‘Don’t go in the bedroom.’

She has her hand on the bedroom door handle. Philip closes his laptop.

‘Why not?’

‘Just take them out with you.’

Philip still has a few lines of coke lined up on the ensuite marble vanity, next to a rolled-up one-hundred-dollar bill, a keycard and most of his silver bracelets. Lin is a new assistant and human resources at the agency will flip if she’s exposed to illicit drugs in the workplace. Go woke or go coke? For Philip, it’s go coke every time.

‘How will you change the presentation?’

Philip has his back to the floor-to-ceiling windows and the radiant cityscape below. He puts his laptop down

‘There isn’t going to be a presentation.’

Lin looks up, surprised. Philip snaps off the television screen.

‘It’s going to be a conversation. Five minutes on the problems. Five minutes on the wrong solutions. Five minutes on the right solution.’

Lin is about to ask what the right solution is when Philip cuts in.

‘Text Mark’s assistant to come up whenever they’re ready. Hopefully they haven’t overdosed on the free peach and vanilla jelly beans in the lobby.’

Lin manages to text a quick message while steadying the bowls and spoons. There’s an instant reply.

‘They’re on their way up.’

Philip takes a deep breath, whips off his sunglasses and smiles. He’s high. Lin looks worried.

‘Can I get you anything?’

‘All good. Thanks for asking though.’

Lin blushes. There’s a muted rat-a-tat-tat at the main door. Phil walks over to open it.

MARK THOMPSON, 66 is on the other side, sending out a text message on his phone. He wears an open neck light blue shirt, dark navy suit, expensive but crumpled. His ASSISTANT, 37, is scrolling her phone screen. Mark smiles and enters, shakes hands.

‘Philip, how are you? Apologies for the change of plans but unfortunately I’ve been called back to Hudson Yards.’

Mark’s voice is sonorous, his thick body and wide face ringed with a laurel of closely cropped hair make him look like either a bishop or an ageing heavyweight boxer. Philip smiles.

‘Another crisis?’

‘Never a dull moment.’

Mark turns to his assistant.

‘I’ll meet you downstairs once I’m finished.’

Lin leaves, balancing the bowls and spoons and escorting Mark’s assistant down the carpeted hallway as the door silently closes behind them.

‘Where’s the loo?’

Philip points to a door a few metres away.

Mark steps into the powder room and closes the door. Philip thinks of dashing to his ensuite and doing a quick line while Mark is otherwise engaged. But thinks better of it.

There’s a soft flush and the sound of running water. Mark opens the door and steps out towards the floor-to-ceiling windows, admiring the stupendous view. Looks down on the former CNN Center, shadows where giant red-and-white CNN logos used to sit on every corner. Mark shakes his head.

The CNN Center and every other asset that wasn’t nailed down had been sold by subsequent owners. Operations and studios were consolidated into CNN’s original midtown campus. CNN moved its headquarters to New York years ago.

Philip steps to the lounge chairs and doesn’t take in the view because he’s terrified of heights. He’s tried hypnosis, acupuncture, therapy, beta blockers. Nothing abates his fear. Even thinking about heights sends his heartbeat racing, shallows his breathing, tightens his chest.

Intellectually he knows it’s not so much a fear of heights as a fear of falling. Or is it fear of flying? One girlfriend had (after too many martinis on top of everything else) convinced Philip to overcome his fear by stepping up to the edge of a soaring rooftop bar and peering over. The urge to leap into the void was so strong that Philip clung onto the metal railing so tightly that paramedics had to be called. Gripped it so tightly he broke the bones in two fingers.

Philip sits in one of the lounge chairs, scrolling on his phone.

‘You know the CNN website is a piece of shit?’

‘I know.’

‘It’s like it’s run by interns.’

‘That’s probably because it is. Cost cutting when Chris and Neil were running the show for the past twelve months. Ludicrous, right?’

Mark is taking in the view.

‘Spectacular view. Can you believe they managed to build a Ferris wheel in front of the old CNN Center? I wonder if you can see Martin Luther King Junior’s house from the top?’

Mark looks up in the sky and sees a stream of commercial jets heading towards Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

‘Busiest airport in the world. A hundred million passengers a year can’t wait to come, can’t wait to leave.’

Mark drops into a lounge chair opposite Philip who places his phone on a side table.

‘You’re not going to pitch me an advertising campaign are you, Philip?’

‘God no! You need more than an advertising campaign to save CNN. You need a big idea, a massive idea. An idea that can shift the cosmos.’

Mark smiles.

‘Have you been to the refurbished CNN campus in midtown?’

‘I called in yesterday.’

‘What did you think?’

‘Carpet might be new but all the staff seemed very worn out, very tired.’

‘They’ve been through a lot.’

‘Atlanta might be CNN’s birthplace but it’s now just an operations centre. All the other departments are there - TBS, TNT, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, TruTV. Even sports programming. Makes the news seems like an afterthought.’

Mark tightens his smile. Philip continues.

‘Mark, you’ve been handed a poisoned chalice. Cable bundling is collapsing, viewership is down forty-nine percent year-on-year, Fox News and MSNBC are outperforming you in the ratings, your relevance is slipping in the digital space, audiences are fleeing because of all the opinion-driven partisan programming. CNN’s become a shit show.’

‘I wouldn’t call it that.’

‘No, you called it a tenured incumbent. Which is just a polite way of saying a feeble, doddery has-been who wears adult diapers. Which is the literal definition of a shit show.’

‘Philip, we’re working on diversifying the business model.’

‘That’s not enough. You’ve got to work on the audience model.’

Philip leans in.

‘You have to double, triple your audience. You have to become the brand people come to first for news.’

‘And charge advertisers, subscribers and stakeholders accordingly?’

Philip nods.

‘You have to get off the programmatic drip feed and bundle with, I don’t know, Netflix or another major streamer. Maybe Apple? Maybe Spotify? Become their news partner and steal as much of their audience as possible as quickly as possible before you become completely irrelevant.’

Mark knows that CNN desperately needs not only a new audience but a new audience that will stay immersed longer and deeper. Brightening up the logo, cleaning up the fonts, shortening the shows, streamlining production will only do so much.

Philip grins.

‘You’ve got to be bold. You’ve got to rewrite the rules of news. You’ve got to give audiences something they’ve never seen before, something they’ll reach out for across every platform, every media.’

Mark raises an eyebrow. Philip Continues.

‘It’s in your DNA. Your initial success was your continuous, live coverage of the first Gulf War in nineteen-ninety-one. You were the only network with the necessary equipment and people in Baghdad. You even had a separate audio feed system so you could keep broadcasting after U.S. forces bombed the shit out of Iraqi power and comms. Your live, unedited coverage was groundbreaking.’

‘Audiences couldn’t turn away.’

Philip nods. Mark continues.

‘So that’s the big idea? Live coverage?’

‘Not your usual live coverage. Not a fixer, a producer, a crew, a dish, a reporter. No lights and branded microphones. No standups in front of an event, delivering a story to camera. Mark, do you know how many people play “Call of Duty?”

‘The video game?’

‘More than twice as many as watch CNN. It’s a first-person shooter where you experience all the action through the eyes of the main character. It’s the most engaging and enthralling gameplay. It’s the most addictive.’

Philip smiles.

‘Mark, the big idea is to remake the news by shooting it all first-person. Drop reporters with kevlar body gear and helmet-mounted cameras and mics straight into war zones.’

‘Like the Jamie Roberts documentary on BBC2? Cams on soldiers on the frontline in Ukraine. Under attack by Russian drones and tanks and hiding out in the woods, right?’

‘Wrong. Roberts had too many cutaways, colour grading was crap, audio was shit, framing was horrible, no throughline.’

‘You’re suggesting a constant feed in real-time from a war zone.’

‘Feeds. Multiple feeds from multiple reporters, multiple perspectives. Put a minimum of three reporters in the field at any one time so you can cut between angles, ramp up the drama. Make it so viewers can’t look away.’

Mark is all ears. Philip continues.

‘Multiple war zones. Verticals on each conflict. Currently there are around one hundred and seventy conflicts around the world. United Nations monitors around one hundred. Out of those you’ve definitely got the top ten - Gaza, Syria, Sudan, Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, The Sahel, Haiti, Armenia-Azerbaijan. Fingers-crossed, Taiwan.’

‘That’s a lot of programming.’ 

‘Unadulterated, unedited, unbiased, real news in real-time. Take advantage of the television signal that’s built into the network. There’s no buffering, no stalling, no streaming issues. There’s just pure unmediated experience. Interspersed with breaking news headlines and links on the lower third.’

Philip wants to tell Mark about augmenting the vision and audio with haptics from each of the reporters. The panting breath, the accelerated heartbeat, the rustling of body armour. Everything to make the experience of news unfolding in real-time more visceral, more real. Everything to make the experience more amazing.

He wants to tell him about the three-hundred-and-sixty-degree cameras on reporters that can provide a completely immersive experience, spatial news. Tell him about holographic anchors teleported into the latest conflicts. About virtual reality recreations of historic battles brought to life with archived data. A flurry of never-before-seen media innovations. But he doesn’t have the time. So he doubles down on what he knows will make Mark excited.

‘We’ve got a once-in-a-generation opportunity in front of us. Every other news network is cutting back on coverage, all the big digital platforms - Google, Meta, Microsoft - are getting out of news.’

He holds both his palms as if holding an imaginary globe.

‘Eight billion people in the world won’t know where to turn for news.’

‘And CNN can be right there for them.’

Philip smiles and nods. Mark continues.

‘It would take a particular kind of reporter, right? Essentially a war correspondent who can tell a story in pictures while narrating in real-time. Addicted to adrenaline. Not to mention rather courageous.’

‘I’d go for reckless, death-defying, a little insolent.’

‘It would make breathtaking television.’

‘Who needs scientists and engineers, algorithms and analytics? Just get great reporters who are prepared to go where no one else will. Great reporters who are prepared to make the news, drive the news cycle.’

Mark pioneered on-demand viewing over the internet at the BBC long before Netflix made streaming a thing. At The New York Times, he transformed a decaying analogue business into a digital powerhouse.

In 2007 when Mark was director general of the BBC, he entered Gaza to negotiate the safe release of BBC reporter Alan Johnston after he was kidnapped by Palestinian militants. Saving the day yet again.

Despite Mark’s executive credentials, journalism remains his first love. He talks newsroom. He always says you’re not a proper journalist until you’ve heard real gunfire on the job.

Because of his executive credentials, he also knows that news - especially in a war zone - is cheap to produce. Everything is captivating. Cheaper reality television, cheaper than sports, certainly cheaper than dramas or documentaries or studio programs.

Mark’s outsider status gives him the space to make changes that would be hard if not impossible for an American media executive. This is what Philip is banking on.

‘A big idea is big because it can spread in all directions. It goes long, spreading across campaigns. It goes wide, spreading across channels. It goes far, spreading across countries,’ Philip says.

‘Big impact, right?’

‘Massive impact. Across the board. It unites everyone internally and externally. A big idea markets itself, it propels itself. It has its own force, its own momentum.’

Mark nods and smiles. Philip grins.

‘You know how I said I didn’t have an advertising campaign?’

Mark arches an eyebrow. Philip winces.

‘I lied.’

Mark laughs as he stands to leave. Philip continues.

‘Although not so much an advertising campaign as a slogan.’

‘Let me have it.’

Philip stands to let Mark out.

‘Mark, what’s CNN’s current slogan?’

Mark steps towards the main door. 

‘Something about the most trusted name in news or trusted facts or -- I’m not even sure.’

‘CNN’s slogan changed to Facts First a few years back to counter all the talk around fake news. But it didn’t help much. If at all. Too generic. You need a new slogan that positions the brand, not the industry.’

Philip puts his hand on the door handle.

‘Positioning is everything. A slogan has to position a brand as effectively as possible, as memorably as possible with as few words as possible. It has to differentiate CNN while simultaneously repositioning your competitors as inferior.’

Philip opens the door, delivers the slogan.

‘CNN. Real News.’

Mark’s eyes widen.

‘I like that. I like that a lot.’

‘It’s good, right.’

‘It’s bloody great, Philip.’

Mark shakes hands, steps out. Looks over his shoulder as he strides towards the elevators.

‘Can you be in New York the day after tomorrow.’

Philip nods.

‘I’ll line something up.’

Philip smiles, steps back into the suite as the door closes. Steps towards the floor-to-ceiling windows.

But he doesn’t look down at the cityscape. He looks up to the boundless sky as his smile widens.

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Copyright 2024 Stefano Boscutti

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This is a work of fiction. While many of the characters portrayed here have counterparts in the life and times of media companies and others, the characterisations and incidents presented are totally the products of the author’s breathtaking imagination. This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It should not be resold or given away. Thank you for your support. (Couldn’t do it without you.)

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