Sluggish CNN retools so it's not outfoxed

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Cable: Veering from the breaking-news formula, CNN starts depending on personalities for a jumpstart.

May 16, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Q: What do you do if you're CNN during Clinton's impeachment or the Florida recount?

A: You gear up for battle, pack a spare toothbrush, and revel in the ratings.

Q: What do you do if you're CNN when no crises arise, and a stiff challenge from the Fox News Channel siphons off viewers?

A: Apparently, you bet the house on a few big names.

The best example is the return of trusted financial news anchor Lou Dobbs after a two-year absence. A celebratory CNN expects him to revive the fortunes of "Moneyline" with a broader-gauged show targeted at a more sophisticated audience that will be less likely to fixate on specific stock picks.

"The broadcast will be focused on the political economy - the interrelationship between government and politics, and science, technology and the environment," Dobbs says.

The cable network's moves are intended to blunt gains made by the Fox News Channel. April ratings estimates from the people at Nielsen show significant rises in Fox's viewing levels from a year ago, as CNN has held roughly even.

For example, Nielsen shows that on an average evening during prime time last month, Fox attracted about 560,000 viewers, up from 327,000, while CNN drew 598,000 viewers. (Fox partisans note that CNN is carried on more cable systems, thus available in more homes.)

In remarks to reporters, new Turner Broadcasting chief Jamie Kellner has made it clear he wants to trade heavily on the popularity of CNN "personalities" - meaning such high-profile figures as Dobbs.

Other retooled programs showcase legal analyst Greta Van Susteren and reporter Wolf Blitzer. "The Spin Room," with the once-insightful Bill Press and the slimmed-down Tucker Carlson, provides a program for those who weren't getting enough exposure to self-impressed Washington blowhards.

While Dobbs was hired before CNN went on the air, the philosophy behind the recent moves cuts deeply against founder Ted Turner's approach during the network's first two decades. During that time, CNN established itself as an authoritative source for breaking news.

"We were sold on the idea that we were serving the news, that the news was not there to serve the personalities," says former CNN correspondent Daniel Schorr, now at National Public Radio. "That recently has clearly changed. CNN has discovered that the star system has worked."

So, daytime anchor Bill Hemmer, who drew notice last year in Florida for his soap-opera-star looks, now has a more prominent role. So, Andrea Thompson, late of "NYPD Blue" and (briefly) a local station in New Mexico, has been hired as a news reader and occasional reporter for CNN.

At a time of significant layoffs, the cable station also has held talks with CBS about saving costs by pooling news operations. Although CBS now appears cool to the idea, Inside.com yesterday reported that ABC News has discussed similar proposals with CNN.

Dobbs' program will go head-to-head with the programs of CNBC (an NBC offshoot) about the workings of the financial markets. But Fox offers the greatest challenge to CNN; it has attracted significant viewership by serving up a blend of contrarian talk shows and solid news reporting, and nursing a well-worn grievance against a perceived liberal media elite.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly, who appears to have knocked off CNN's Larry King as the top-rated talk show host on cable, best exemplifies these characteristics. He has helped the 5-year-old network sustain momentum even after Bill Clinton's departure from office.

In the absence of breaking news, MSNBC airs an able nightly newscast with Brian Williams, "Hardball" with political shouter Chris Matthews, and a compendium of rehashed news magazine and radio shows. Drawing upon the news crew of NBC and the deep pockets of the network and Microsoft, its horizons would seem limitless. In its current incarnation, however, MSNBC's ratings lag.

These developments help explain the new mantra of personality arising at CNN. Even so, the changes there could lead to some intriguing journalism.

Along with Shelley Ross, the former executive producer of ABC News' "Good Morning America," Jeff Greenfield is being given the chance to develop the topical talk show he's envisioned for years.

"There are an awful lot of people who have opinions about politics, about culture, about the way we live now, who aren't pundits," Greenfield says. Set to debut next month as a weekday evening show, it would avoid the binary confrontation so common on TV.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong - and everything right, in a competitive environment - in saying we need compelling people on our news programs," Greenfield says. "You can never have personalities at the expense of journalism. You need personalities who are good storytellers."

Ultimately, Dobbs says, it will be the caliber of the news programming, not the celebrity of the reporters, that will dictate how CNN is regarded by viewers.

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