Byko: The story you will never see on airport TV

byko07-b-07032017-0002
CNN Airport Network Senior Vice President Debbie Cooper says CNN does not have a monopoly at the airport.

So you’re sitting near the gate at Philadelphia International Airport, waiting for your plane. After you read your newspaper (I hope) and  finish making calls on your cellphone, check emails and Snapchat (millennials only), you look at the wall-mounted TV screen, and there’s CNN.

When you walk through the terminal changing planes in Chicago, there’s CNN. And when you reach your final destination, San Francisco, the airport screens are showing CNN -- not Fox, not MSNBC, not ESPN.

Coincidence? No.

And it’s not exactly CNN. It is a close relative, a customized feed called CNN Airport Network, a satellite-delivered service that has a television monopoly at 50 U.S. airports, plus the one in Bermuda. It is seen at 2,400 gates.

The word monopoly makes CNN Airport Network senior vice president Debbie Cooper wince.

Winning contracts at airports is a result of responding to requests for bids across the spectrum, whether it’s for TV operations, cleaning services, or restaurants. So while CNN has a “de facto” monopoly, says Cooper, other networks could be brought in. 

CNN Airport Network launched in 1991 during the Gulf War, before cellphones delivered the world to your palm. Then-bossman Ted Turner, the colorful visionary, thought people were interested enough in the news to make this thing work. It did, just as did CNN, which he launched a decade earlier, in 1980.

Thankfully, the war ended quickly and with it the need for hard news 24/7. Turner broadened the airport programming.

Now, the network delivers national and international news, entertainment, weather, travel -- and live sports, from March Madness to the Super Bowl.

But while you seem to be watching CNN, and sometimes you are, there are also departures from the main feed, including original programming and commercials that are customized for the air traveler. The CNN Airport Network has three of its own reporters and its own control room in Atlanta.

Here’s a little secret:  The airport news service filters the news. You will never see a newsworthy air disaster on an airport screen, even if such a report is being carried by CNN. The airport operation runs on a 10-second delay, which allows it to edit on the fly, pun intended, to block "bad" airline news from passengers who might be upset by it. The network usually covers banned news by throwing in a quick weather report or other filler.

The network knows it has a captive audience, some of whom are nervous fliers. “We don’t want airport travelers in distress,” says spokeswoman Bridget Leininger.

The average viewing time per airport is 53 minutes, says Alison Hashimoto, vice president of programming. “We have a very broad audience, people from 3 to 93,” she says, and research shows  “people like a variety of content.”

About 35 percent of the content is news and weather, followed by 25 percent for live sports, 15 percent for lifestyle, 15 percent for travel, and 10 percent for local  content. 

 “We know our audience very well, and they want diversity," Cooper says. "They want to sit back in the passive mode and absorb information or be entertained.”

In addition to being paid by CNN Airport Network, airports get up to six minutes each hour to promote the airport or local attractions. One hand washes the other. 

All that’s good, the diversity and all, but living in a supercharged political environment has its hazards.

Such as some conservative passengers objecting to being force-fed programming from what they like to call the “Clinton News Network” and which President Trump has accused of broadcasting “fake news,” one of his many peculiar beliefs.

“People have their right to any opinion,” says Hashimoto, choosing her words carefully, “and at CNN we stand by all the reporting that is going on every day. CNN is a very trusted news source,” and she points to a 2014 Pew Research poll that found CNN "most trusted" among the networks.  “One thing we’ve learned is that people are not afraid to say their opinions.”

That’s a statement that certainly won't be subject to challenge.