Interest in the Persian Gulf Crisis which began in August 1990 culminating in the Operation Desert Storm battle which started in mid January 1991 brought record numbers of viewers to television, perhaps fearful of the fate of the world economy. In August 1990, the 3 network news flagships attracted a combined 28.8% ratings and 60% share of the audience.
In mid January 1991, at the start of Operation Desert Storm, the evening newscasts attracted an overall combined ratings average of 35.3%. In its own universe of cable homes, CNN, which provided live transmissions from Iraq, also experienced an increase in subscriptions. Some 120 countries around the world watched the Persian Gulf Crisis unfolded minute by minute on CNN.
One reporter remarked, "It was a new kind of television, strangely disturbing, yet so immediate were the pictures that it was impossible to ignore." As reported, "For the first time in the history of war, it was instant, live and in the American living room, relayed at the speed of light via communications satellites from combat front directly into living rooms and offices around the world."
It was noted "for 5 months (August 1990 to January 1991) George Bush senior and Saddam Hussein used CNN to communicate to each other where the whole world could hear." Ted Turner told the press in 1990, "I wanted to use communications as a positive force in the world, to tie the world together. And you know something, it’s working."
Steve Haworth of CNN told the 'Los Angeles Times', "Tarik Aziz says that (Saddam Hussein) watches us. I don’t know what he watches, but he watches." At the time, it was said the Persian Gulf coverage was the most important telecast since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Reuven Frank recalled, "With (the Cuban Missile Crisis), people watched because they didn’t know what was going to happen. But nobody ever set a time limit." The deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait was January 15, 1991.
It was understood the networks spent huge sums of money on the coverage of the Middle East Crisis. Some 65 million of the 93.1 million households with TV sets at the time watched then President Bush's televised address to the nation. At that time, it was the most-watched broadcast in TV history, surpassing the final episode of 'M*A*S*H' in 1983 which attracted about 50 million households.
The first 2 days of Operation Desert Storm, the networks devoted the whole prime time schedules to the Persian Gulf coverage. The first night attracted a combined 45.2% ratings and 63% share. The second night attracted a combined 38.4% ratings and 57% share. David Poltrack made the observation, "The channel switching is pretty dynamic.
"Each network is gaining and losing 2 full ratings points in any quarter hour. It is conceivable this will change the dynamics of viewing. There is no real winner in terms of the transitional audience. The tuning in and out to each network was about equal. (During a crisis), our feeling is that what won’t hold up is something that is inherently depressing itself. Tear-jerkers and disease-of-the-week TV movies won’t work in this environment. People are not looking for something else to depress them."
Marc Gunther made the comment, "Images count in television, even when they appear innocuous. The networks deliver messages even with the images they use to open and close their nightly newscasts. Those images have become part of the fabric of war coverage, but they are more than decoration. They are images that could easily be transplanted into a recruiting campaign for the armed forces. Although the pictures communicate a political message, they are not intended to advance a political agenda. They are chosen to stimulate the emotions."
The network decided to revamp 'NBC News' in 1990. Tom Brokaw recounted, "(ABC News) is No. 1 now with a number that wouldn’t have gotten (it) into 5th place six, seven years ago (back in 1983). I mean, obviously it’s mystifying when they change rating systems (in 1988 from diary to people meters). We go from No. 1 to No. 3 and have a hard time recovering.
"But everybody knew we had to change. (Previous producer) Bill (Wheatley) helped define the newscast of the '80s and he grew up in that more traditional way of looking at news. We’re looking at what a network news program ought to be in the 1990s, given all these other circumstances that exist in our world. Steve (Friedman), I think, has a pretty apt metaphor, which is that it’s no longer an island.
"It’s part of the landscape of television, so we have to be a little more analytical … and be less the kind of diary of the day that we used to be. It’s a baby we haven’t even brought home yet. Of the 3 networks, I think the one that has its act together best at the moment is ABC News, obviously and it shows on the air. There was a time when I began in this business and for a long period of time in my career, in which the evening news programs were the engines that pulled the rest of the train of television news in America. Now (in 1990), all those other train cars are going whatever direction they want to. I think Steve realizes that he caused a nine-car wreck with 'USA Today'."
On reflection, Steve Friedman conceded, "I've learned from my mistake on 'USA Today'. I had thought that form mattered more than content. People may think that I’ve been brought in to soften 'Nightly News'. In fact, I’m going to harden it up … The show is being redesigned around Tom’s strengths. He’s our best reporter, and people like to see him out on the story when there’s a big news event.
"Having Jane (Pauley) there will allow us to take a chance on letting Tom go to places where we think news will be breaking and to stories such as the recent trip (back in 1990) to Mount St. Helens, where we define the story as news … If you do a show with co-anchors, you have to redesign the entire show. You can’t just have Jane sit next to Tom and read half the copy. It’s totally ridiculous. A lot of people didn’t consider 'Today' a news show when I did it. Fact is, a lot of it was news."
Tom Brokaw added, "In 22 minutes, whether it’s me or Jane or Willard Scott anchoring the news, I just don’t think there’s enough time to divide up the news with a co-anchor." Steve Friedman pointed out, "With (Jane) Pauley available, every time he takes off on a story we don’t have to wonder what are we going to do. Jane will be there."
At the time, Jane Pauley was also presenting the 'Real Life' program. Producer David Browing insisted 'Real Life' was "not abstractions about high policy on Capitol Hill, but very close-to-the-bone stories of what goes on in the living rooms, stores and schools of America. The highlight was a street fight out on Sixth Avenue, with guys throwing knishes and souvlaki at each other. I never did figure out what it was all about." Jane Pauley described 'Real Life' as "a survey of how it is to live in America in the '90s."
"We are trying to keep our eye on the bigger story and not on press wars (being 'NBC News' ranked 3rd in the ratings)," Tom Brokaw told 'Gannett News Service' at the time. The bigger story being the Mideast Crisis. Not since the Korean War, had a crisis commanded the complete attention of the world and network newscasts. Prior to Iraq annex Kuwait, on July 17 1990, Saddam Hussein used the 22nd anniversary (1968-1990) of his Ba'ath Party rise to power to demand Kuwait forgave Iraq $15 billion in loans extended during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88).
It was reported in 1978, Saddam Hussein expelled the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the request of the Shah of Iran, forcing the Ayatollah to flee to France. Saddam Hussein also demanded Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to pay Iraq $14 billion to compensate for Iraq lost due to low oil prices ($14 a barrel) because Kuwait and the UAE exceeded their OPEC oil production quotas by over a million barrels a day. A letter from Saddam Hussein's foreign minister to the Arab League alleged Kuwait stole $2.4 billion worth of petroleum during the 1980s decade from an Iraqi oil field situated between the two nations disputed border.
Tom Bettag of 'CBS News' made the point, "When a country is at war, there’s an enormous amount of responsibility riding on what we say. We’re the alarm system for the country. Everyone knows someone who’s in the desert. We’ve got to say 'Here’s what we know and here’s what we don’t know.'" Steve Friedman mentioned, "The challenge is telling the story coherently. Context is an issue." Dave Miller of 'NBC News' maintained, "We kept Brokaw in New York because it’s the center of communications. We thought it was just too fluid a situation to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."