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Tom Johnson

One day last August, Cable News Network President Tom Johnson was met by four Delta Air Lines officials upon his arrival at London‘s Gatwick Airport. The officials immediately whisked Johnson away and relayed to him an urgent message: Call CNN headquarters in Atlanta.The reason for the message: Hard-line Communists in the Soviet Union had ousted …

One day last August, Cable News Network President Tom Johnson was met by four Delta Air Lines officials upon his arrival at London‘s Gatwick Airport. The officials immediately whisked Johnson away and relayed to him an urgent message: Call CNN headquarters in Atlanta.

The reason for the message: Hard-line Communists in the Soviet Union had ousted then-President Mikhail Gorbachev. Johnson’s lieutenants sought direction on how to cover the putsch.

“I said: `Let’s do whatever it takes in terms of staffing and satellite linkups so we can cover this as well as we covered the war in the Persian Gulf,”‘ Johnson recalls. CNN did, beaming worldwide the live, on-the-spot coverage that has become its trademark. In fact, the network did its job so well that some Moscow residents watched on television as Soviet tanks encircled the Russian White House, where Boris Yeltsin had holed up. Providing the coverage was affiliate CNN International. Likewise, CNN was there with cameras rolling when Yeltsin emerged from the building to straddle a tank and rally his supporters, and later as Gorbachev was restored but the Soviet Union crumbled.

CNN is part of the news division of Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting System. But billionaire Turner has handed Johnson, 51, near-total authority over the division, which also includes the international unit and CNN Headline News.

The reason? Don’t tinker with success. The news division’s revenues jumped 18.4 percent in 1991 to $479.5 million. Those of CNN International alone soared 107 percent. Division revenues accounted for 32.4 percent of TBS’ $1.48 billion total, compared with 29.1 percent in 1990. But the division garnered net profits of $167.6 million, 56.4 percent of the parent’s bottom line.

To be sure, there are clouds on the horizon. Analysts say ad revenues may level off following a year in which CNN won kudos for its coverage of America‘s first war in 20 years and the crumbling of a superpower. According to some estimates, coverage of Operation Desert Storm ignited a 400 percent increase in viewers during last year’s first quarter.

In addition, since CNN relies on cable systems for most of its U.S. exposure, its continued growth is tied to the health of the cable industry. And the sector’s prognosis is mixed: Although cable’s penetration in U.S. homes rose to 61.1 percent in April 1992 from 59.6 percent a year earlier, the industry has been the target of “price-gouging” charges and re-regulation proposals on Capitol Hill.

Cable multi-system operators, or MSOs, argue that if their rates are regulated, it will strap their marketing efforts, delay expansion and stymie growth of channel capacity. While this wouldn’t mean that any systems would drop CNN, the network would be denied key expansion opportunities.

In day-to-day operations, Johnson opts for a collegial management approach. If Ted Turner gives him a relatively free hand, Johnson does the same with his editors.

“I provide significant authority to the top editors, because in this business, speed is life,” says Johnson, who joined CNN in 1990. “I don’t want to create a bureaucratic process that slows the response time.”

Currently, CNN is expanding into niche programming. Already, CNN’s Airport Channel and Shopping Channel provide viewers with specialized reports; several more such services are being considered. Johnson considers them prudent risks: “We need to stay ahead of the competition,” he says. “We can’t get tied down in ‘analysis-paralysis.’ “

On occasion, CNN’s expanding international scope has turned Johnson from newswatcher to newsmaker. Last December, he looked on as Gorbachev prepared to sign the decree transferring presidential power to Yeltsin.

Trouble was, Gorby’s pen wouldn’t work, so Johnson offered his, a Mont Blanc instrument inscribed with the CNN logo. Thus making history, Johnson noted later, was a pen bearing the mark of what was once derided as the “Chicken Noodle Network.”

In September, Johnson will also host the “World Economic Development Congress,” a CNN-sponsored gathering of chief executives from multinational companies and officials from government, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In 1965, Johnson won a White House fellowship and was assigned to work in the office of Bill Moyers, then press secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Later, he became executive editor and president of the Dallas Times-Herald. In 1977, Otis Chandler, then-chairman of Times Mirror, hired him as president of the Los Angeles Times. Johnson stayed on for 13 years.

“I have very low tolerance for mediocrity,” Johnson says. “I press myself and the people around me a great deal.

“I want CNN to be the best at what we do.”

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