THE SCENE: a darkened hotel room in Bologna, Bangkok or Bratislava. Outside it's raining, wiping out your sightseeing schedule for the day, but that's an academic matter anyway, since you're so badly jet-lagged that even a trip to the minibar seems hopeless. You're hungry, you've already read all the magazines you packed, and you're homesick.
You click through the TV channels: an American movie, but dubbed into Polish with Estonian subtitles; an Italian quiz show, one whose participants seem to be making up the incomprehensible rules as they go; and soccer, soccer, soccer. But then with another click comes a comforting, familiar, unmistakable voice of home: Darth Vader.
It's James Earl Jones, intoning, "This is CNN." Actually, he's a bit imprecise, since this is CNN International, CNN's worldwide news service.
As my wife and I have traveled throughout the world, we have found CNNI practically everywhere, and thus foreign travel has become like a series of family reunions. It's an extended family, though. While wacky Uncle Larry always comes to these things, there are distant cousins here, too -- friendly enough, but talking about issues we only sort of remember from World Civ.
CNNI news stories are more worldwide in scope than those at home, even on our network news: much more on African issues, for example, or train crashes in Turkey, or elections in Indonesia. But where's the Scott Peterson trial? Have these people never heard of "The Apprentice" or Joe Gibbs? And what is this unhealthy preoccupation with soccer?
The truth is that, notwithstanding its ubiquity on hotel TVs, CNNI isn't primarily intended for traveling Yanks. Nigel Pritchard of the network's public relations office estimates that only about 3 percent of CNNI's worldwide audience consists of American expats. Rather, the service is directed generally to the English-speaking populations of the countries we're visiting.
Although sometimes it's the only English-language service available, CNNI often competes for Anglophone ears with BBC World and Rupert Murdoch's Sky News. CNN's stateside competitors Fox News Channel and CNBC are available in some places, too. As to viewership levels for each, comparisons are hard to make since no one computes worldwide ratings. As Pritchard says, "There is no European Nielsen."
About 90 percent of CNNI's programming is produced exclusively for the international network. Most of the remainder consists of material shared with CNN's domestic service: "Larry King Live," for instance, or "NewsNight with Aaron Brown," or on weekends Wolf Blitzer's "Late Edition." (True to his program's name, King is aired live even overseas, contributing to travelers' disorientation when they see him at sunrise in some distant time zone.) Newscasts are CNNI's own, except for breaking news, when CNNI may simulcast domestic CNN or vice versa. Some CNNI news stories may have an American core but, Pritchard says, often they must be expanded to provide context for viewers unfamiliar with the subject or to explain certain American colloquialisms.
CNNI feeds virtually any part of the globe that can receive service from the 38 satellites that carry it, although Pritchard concedes that there is a bit of a coverage problem in North Korea. The programming originates in three major studios: Atlanta (where CNNI shares a building with domestic CNN), London and Hong Kong. How much of the world each of them feeds at any given time depends on which region is in "prime time" and which stock markets are active at the moment. The studios hand off to each other at hour and half-hour breaks -- almost seamlessly, except for slight differences in studio decor. All of the weather forecasting comes from the Atlanta studio, however; thus when a Hong Kong-based anchor transitions to the weathercaster, considerably more logistics are involved than when Matt cues Al on "Today."
My wife and I have watched wars start on CNNI: In October 2001 -- after 9/11 had already had made us wary of everybody -- we sat in an Amman, Jordan, hotel room, waiting for our driver to pick us up for our flight to Damascus, when we heard CNNI announce the start of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. In March 2003 we were in Padua, Italy -- a city festooned with antiwar pace signs -- when CNNI informed us that U.S. forces launched their drive toward Baghdad.
I also often credit CNNI for ruining my day. Because of differences in time zones, U.S. stock markets sometimes close before I even wake. Thus, not only am I faced with eating noodles and rice gruel for breakfast, I already know that my 401-K went down the commode today (an odd thought to have in a country where commodes are rare).
But the occasional bad news is ameliorated by those distant cousins, the CNN news staffers we encounter abroad. Richard Quest works out of London and is the most relentlessly peppy man on TV. A Brit, he reports on business topics in a toothy accent I can imitate only by spraining my jaw. He also anchored CNNI's U.S. election-year coverage. Anchor Rosemary Church is from Northern Ireland by way of Australia and England, but is based now in Atlanta. Her diction is elocution-lesson perfect, at least to my midwestern ears. And we have been tracking the changing hairstyles of weathercaster Femi Oke for years. British of Nigerian descent, she too has that patented U.K. perkiness.
CNNI's weather forecasting is emblematic of the differences between news coverage abroad and what we're used to in America. Weather doesn't stop at national borders. Logically I know this, of course, but hearing Oke speak of a high pressure ridge extending from Oslo to Lisbon as if she were talking about Milwaukee and Kansas City . . . it's, well, just so international. And really, notwithstanding Americans' disinclination to hear news that doesn't directly affect the United States., shouldn't we be able see by now that, like the weather, political and economic events don't stop neatly at frontiers either?
CNNfn, CNN's financial cable network in the United States, used to fill its overnights and weekends with CNNI. So if I wanted to feel as though I were on vacation, I could listen to Church exquisitely pronounce the names of Iraqi notables or catch up on the weather forecast in Katmandu, even as I sprawled in my Arlington family room. Unfortunately, as of Dec. 15, CNNfn is no more. But CNN currently is in negotiations with various cable operators to carry CNNI full time on their systems. While none of the operators in the Washington area has as yet signed up, the international service is available in various cities, including Boston, Chicago and Cleveland.
Lucky blokes: They get to feel like they're still on holiday, getting updated on the news from Norway, Nigeria and Nepal. And sitting through 15 minutes of soccer news to get a few baseball scores.