CNN is not quite the Atlantacentric operation it once was when creator Ted Turner would stroll through the newsroom in a bathrobe.
Top management has largely moved to New York. Carol Costello and Brooke Baldwin, the last of the major on-air anchors based in Atlanta, migrated to New York over the summer. Recent cutbacks reduced Atlanta operations by more than 200 employees.
But a bulk of the news channel’s operations remain at CNN Center. This has enabled the CNN Inside Studio Tour to remain a popular tourist destination for more than a quarter century. In recent years, the tour has been part of a popular Atlanta discount CityPass deal that includes the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia Aquarium and the High Museum.
Although CNN’s cable network no longer draws the eyeballs it had before the Web and Fox News diverted much of its audience, CNN remains an iconic international brand.
As a result, more than 300,000 people take the tour annually, a number that has stayed fairly steady in recent years, according to Bill McElhaney, who runs the tour and the CNN Store, another Turner-created staple. The CityPass provides 25 percent to 30 percent of traffic.
Credit Turner himself with the tour’s existence. When CNN moved to CNN Center downtown in 1987, Turner wanted to burnish his growing network with a tourist experience. He purposely built the tour into the structure of the news space, with specific areas for tourists to view the newsroom without interrupting the flow of business.
“At one point, the tour, from an economic point of view, was more successful than some of our channels,” said Tom Johnson, president of CNN from 1990 to 2001. “I’m delighted it’s still here. I hope it will always be.”
Jessica Hezekiah, an Alberquerque, N.M., nurse attending a conference and taking a break to go on the tour recently, said the guides were informative but she was disappointed she saw no live anchors in the studio.
“Where’s Anderson?” one tourist asked during a recent tour, referencing Anderson Cooper. “He’s based out of New York,” the guide responded.
Chloe Evers, a former tour guide in 1999 and 2000, said that, when she was there, she was able to point out Turner himself or then-wife Jane Fonda in the newsroom. Celebrities used to pop by, too. “I remember seeing Barry Manilow, Hugh Grant,” she said.
Evers recalled former Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts as especially friendly. “He’d always wave at us,” she said. “All the tour guides loved him.”
McElhaney said tourists are still satisfied with what they get. The 15 tour guides, mostly out of college and seeking jobs in journalism, supply a steady flow of facts about CNN and patiently answer any queries thrown their way.
“We really focus the tour on behind the scenes and how we bring the news to you,” rather than personalities, he said. “We focus on the control room and the technology.”
On Yelp, the tour gets an average of 3.5 stars out of 5 among 98 reviewers. On Tripadvisor, it receives 4 out of 5 stars, with 69 percent of reviewers giving it a good or excellent rating and only 11 percent marking terrible or poor.
“First rate, very smooth, slick and professional tour,” one reviewer wrote on Tripadvisor earlier this month. “Lots of chances to ask questions — our host seemed disappointed we didn’t ask enough.”
The basic structure of the tour hasn’t changed much over the years. Both the regular and VIP tours take about 50 minutes. They start with the world’s longest and tallest free-standing escalator rising 196 feet and eight stories, the only remnant from when CNN Center was home to the World of Sid and Marty Krofft theme park.
Once at the top, tour participants can get their picture taken at a fake desk set, then watch the CNN producers work a live show from a special auditorium. Tourists then enter a room with a green screen (used for superimposing a person over a map or graphic) and camera equipment. CNN, which relies on digital interactive screens, hasn’t used green screens in six years, but the tour guides still play around with the technology for a few laughs.
The VIP tour includes visits inside Studio 7, a production room and walks through the CNN and HLN newsrooms. The regular tour provides outside views of the newsrooms and the main studio. Studio 7, where Costello and Baldwin used to work until July, is mostly empty nowadays, but sister station HLN — which still airs much of its programming from Atlanta — will move there eventually.
While CNN no longer has its big stars here, HLN still does. There’s a special VIP tour that includes a meet-and-greet with HLN morning host Robin Meade every Thursday morning for just a 10 or so people.
“She’ll come over and hug you and sign anything,” McElhaney said. “She’ll put you on TV!”