CNN’s Sit Room: Deja Vu All Over Again

Reading about the new CNN Situation Room and the other interactive efforts underway, I had the strangest feeling we’d stood and talked like this before. (Apologies to Rogers & Hart.) We had — the CNN show was called TalkBack Live and it broke the ground the others stand on today. And yet it’s as if the show never happened. I’ve posted the full article I wrote about TBL seven years ago in extended comments; here are some excerpts.

On any given day, participants can join a live audience, enter an on-line
chat room, send e-mail, phone in or fax in. By late August, "TalkBack Live‘s" newest access point — video conferencing — should be out of testing and ready to go. And computer users with a fairly fast connection, a decent video card and the right software don’t have to turn on a TV to watch the show via Webcast. …

When "TalkBack Live" debuted on Aug. 22, 1994, the reviews were not all kind. Some were downright dismissive of the techno-gimmickry and the addition of yet another talk show. One reviewer described it as CNN’s "’Larry King Live‘ crossed with ‘Donahue’ with just a hint of talk radio." …

It may be hard to imagine, but the show began before the Web was a household word. Back then CNN’s major on-line presence was through CompuServe, where "TalkBack Live" hosted a forum. E-mail, faxes and phone calls were all part of the mix. The show even tried video conferencing, but the technology was too slow to be of real use. …

I’m not suggesting the Sit Room is a TBL remake or that it isn’t worth attention in its own right. But it didn’t spring from Zeus fully formed, either, and a lot of what’s being tried now isn’t new.

([“mb”,”
\r\nThat way there are no commercials, though CNN does run a promo every time you
\r\n"tune in."
\r\n
\r\nSoon, viewers may even have a direct say in the topics to be discussed on
\r\nthat day\’s show.
\r\n
\r\nWhen "TalkBack Live" debuted on Aug. 22, 1994, the reviews were not all kind.
\r\nSome were downright dismissive of the techno-gimmickry and the addition of yet
\r\nanother talk show. One reviewer described it as CNN\’s " \’Larry King Live\’
\r\ncrossed with \’Donahue\’ with just a hint of talk radio."
\r\n
\r\nToday, however, the concept doesn\’t seem so far-fetched, says Teya Ryan, vice
\r\npresident of program development for CNN Productions and the creator of
\r\n"TalkBack Live."
\r\n
\r\n"A lot of it came out of the \’92 campaign, when you started to see the
\r\ncandidates going around the media and to the public trying to create a direct
\r\nline. . . . It seemed the public was really responding," she says. "They wanted
\r\nmore direct access to people that influence their lives, and those people could
\r\nbe the president, members of Congress, the head of a corporation, anyone whom
\r\nthe general public generally doesn\’t have direct access to."
\r\n
\r\nCNN, she thought, was in a unique position to make this happen as a network
\r\nthat has room "to go beyond the experts and create a direct link between the
\r\npublic and the people who have power in the country."
\r\n
\r\nA live audience in the atrium of CNN Center in Atlanta was the core of the
\r\nidea, but Ryan thought the show could do more. "People were beginning to
\r\ncommunicate in ways that were really different. If I was going to open this up I
\r\nthought we should do it in a way that acknowledged that."
\r\n
\r\nAnd, she added, "I felt that we shouldn\’t close the doors to anyone. If you
\r\ncouldn\’t come to Atlanta but could send in a fax, you should get on the show."”,1]
);
//–>

Published August 19, 1998
Chicago Tribune Tempo Page 1

Public Access: CNN’S ‘Talkback‘ Format Proves Doubters Wrong

By Staci D. Kramer
Special to the Chicago Tribune.

CNN president Rick Kaplan was still fairly new to his job when he ran into Steven Spielberg at Time’s 75th anniversary bash last spring.

When Spielberg realized Kaplan was at CNN, he told the news exec, "I just love your new town meeting."

"It took me a minute to figure out he was talking about ‘TalkBack Live,’ " Kaplan recalls. "He said, ‘Yes, I try to e-mail in all the time.’ " Then the two laughed about the probable disbelief in the control room if an e-mail from the
famed director ever showed up.

Spielberg may not have recalled the name of the show, but he showed a great grasp of the concept. Billed as America’s Town Meeting, "TalkBack Live" routinely does something other networks usually do as specials: It provides a direct pipeline from the public to the people who make and report the news.

And it does so in a way no other network comes close to matching. Other shows may claim to be interactive, but no other show goes to the lengths that "TalkBack Live" does.

On any given day, participants can join a live audience, enter an on-line chat room, send e-mail, phone in or fax in. By late August, "TalkBack Live‘s" newest access point — video conferencing — should be out of testing and ready to go. And computer users with a fairly fast connection, a decent video card and the right software don’t have to turn on a TV to watch the show via Webcast. That way there are no commercials, though CNN does run a promo every time you
"tune in."

Soon, viewers may even have a direct say in the topics to be discussed on
that day’s show.

When "TalkBack Live" debuted on Aug. 22, 1994, the reviews were not all kind. Some were downright dismissive of the techno-gimmickry and the addition of yet another talk show. One reviewer described it as CNN’s " ‘Larry King Live‘ crossed with ‘Donahue’ with just a hint of talk radio."

Today, however, the concept doesn’t seem so far-fetched, says Teya Ryan, vice president of program development for CNN Productions and the creator of "TalkBack Live."

"A lot of it came out of the ’92 campaign, when you started to see the candidates going around the media and to the public trying to create a direct line. . . . It seemed the public was really responding," she says. "They wanted more direct access to people that influence their lives, and those people could be the president, members of Congress, the head of a corporation, anyone whom
the general public generally doesn’t have direct access to.",/p>

CNN, she thought, was in a unique position to make this happen as a network that has room "to go beyond the experts and create a direct link between the public and the people who have power in the country."

A live audience in the atrium of CNN Center in Atlanta was the core of the
idea, but Ryan thought the show could do more. "People were beginning to communicate in ways that were really different. If I was going to open this up I thought we should do it in a way that acknowledged that."

And, she added, "I felt that we shouldn’t close the doors to anyone. If you couldn’t come to Atlanta but could send in a fax, you should get on the show.

"TalkBack Live" replaced "Sonya Live," which aired in the morning to about 200,000 households. It quickly picked up a larger audience, peaking during the O.J. Simpson trial at 3.5 million households the day Denise Brown testified. Now it hovers around 485,000 households, rising when the subject is hot. A "Clinton-Lewinsky" show spikes the ratings about 25 percent; there have been 35 this year.

It may be hard to imagine, but the show began before the Web was a household word. Back then CNN’s major on-line presence was through CompuServe, where "TalkBack Live" hosted a forum. E-mail, faxes and phone calls were all part of the mix. The show even tried video conferencing, but the technology was too slow to be of real use.

This month CNN will reintroduce video calls as part of a deal with Intel, which is promoting a video call product in the $200 range, and Cybersmith, a small chain of cybercafes planning a major expansion.

Juggling so many different kinds of communication seemed awkward at first. Airing live without a delay left the show vulnerable to prank calls of the Howard Stern variety; the show’s producers now prevent most pranks by taking callers’ numbers and calling them back before they can go on the air. In addition, when former host Susan Rook ambushed people in the audience she often received incoherence for her efforts. Now the audiences are prepped, and staffers keep an eye out for those who are ready to talk.

Also in the early days, CNN executives thought most of "TalkBack Live‘s" shows could be planned in advance. They quickly learned to incorporate breaking news into the formula, meshing with one of the network’s greatest strengths.
Now, some shows are scheduled in advance but the day’s topic is never set in stone. Much like "Nightline," a subject agreed upon that morning can be overtaken by events and change completely by air time.

And after nine months of playing musical hosts since Rook’s departure in late 1997, "Talkback Live" now will be shared by savvy weekend anchors Bobbie Battista and Miles O’Brien. Each will host solo two days a week, and they’ll appear together on Wednesdays.

There was a time, Ryan says, when it was extremely difficult to fill the 150-seat atrium set. "Those were heartbreaking days, because I knew we’d get there if the network would just have faith."

Then came the 1996 Olympics. "When we realized it truly worked was during the Olympics, when the crowds were so enormous," she says. "It was so exciting to see that we could provide a link between the public and these athletes. When Carl Lewis came on I’ve never seen an audience more excited."

No longer in charge of the daily operations, sometimes Ryan can’t resist taking a break from her other duties and heading to the atrium. "There are days I walk down and I see a huge crowd and I feel very, very proud."

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