CNN Headline News gets new spin

Jul 16, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The headline news thus far out of the television critics press tour is the controversial and imminent makeover of CNN Headline News.
The press tour, now under way and sponsored by the Television Critics Association, is a semi-annual ritual at which the nation’s assembled critics, approximately 140 strong, watch the new shows and question the new stars, whether those stars are in front of the camera or behind the executive desk.
The new Headline News circular set meant to remind viewers of a ticking clock, the rapid “whip-arounds” from reporter to reporter, the graphics-laden “multi-element” screen, the urgent French-horns-meet-teletype-machines theme music, the cast of in-house “experts,” led by former actress-turned-newswoman Andrea Thompson-all of it was met with a heavy dose of skepticism from the critics, who repeatedly asked questions that implied they thought CNN was in danger of succumbing to the temptation to substitute personality-driven show-biz flash for traditionally sober journalism.
CNN’s brand-new boss Walter Isaacson, chairman and CEO of the CNN News Group, Turner Broadcasting System Chairman and CEO Jamie Kellner and Headline News Executive Vice President and General Manager Teya Ryan repeatedly said it wasn’t so.
“You do not have to dumb things down to get ratings,” Mr. Isaacson said.
Calling Headline News an “underutilized asset,” Mr. Kellner said that with the new look, debuting Aug. 6, it has “gone from something that was credible … to something that is dazzling.”
CNN itself is the “Cadillac of the industry,” Mr. Kellner said, to which Mr. Isaacson interjected: “We’re going to make it a Porsche as well.”
CNN under his watch would emphasize its basic journalistic mission, Mr. Isaacson said. “Then you take that mission and you say, `We’re trusted and credible and all that-let’s also make it fascinating and fast and fun.”’
Nonetheless, the CNN executives had to field numerous skeptical questions, such as the one suggesting the demands of synergy would require a compromise of journalistic integrity. “Natural collaborations,” yes, said Mr. Isaacson, but not “forced synergy. … You prevent it and you come down hard [on it]. In the audience, there were even japes from critics who thought the promo reel that unveiled the new look of Headline News had played like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch.
One critic wanted to know just how many teletype machines CNN had on the new set (none was the answer from Ms. Ryan); another speculated that the new Headline News might limit stories to four seconds each; another asked if stars would be emphasized at CNN to the detriment of content (a news “star” might just be someone who “knows how to work the beat,” Mr. Isaacson said); and yet another wondered if the competition from Fox News Channel would pull CNN in a more conservative direction (“Down the middle-that’s the brand,” Mr. Kellner said).
Of the persistent speculation that CNN would merge its news operations with CBS or ABC, Mr. Kellner confirmed that there had been discussions over a period of three years, but he said, “There is not going to be a merger. … It will always be owned by AOL Time Warner. There is the potential we could do news gathering for another network and provide some services.”
He likened that possibility to the “studio model” under which entertainment shows are commissioned by networks from sometimes competing studios, and he said that if that happened, it would be “us licensing material that we develop to their specifications.”
As the cable-network portion of TCA unfolded last week, it was most characterized, as always, by bon mots and sometimes tense sparring with the out-of-town critics and not by actual news. A sample of the jibes and sparks that flew:
* Doug Herzog, president, USA Network, got the TCA proceedings off to an appropriately and genially cynical start when he quipped to the critics, who often grouse about the endless length of the press tour, “I could lie about almost everything, and you guys would probably forget about it by the time you got around to the Food Network.”
* “Dramality”-that was the useful word that Brian Gadinsky, executive producer of “Combat Missions,” the new USA series from “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett, coined when he inadvertently misspoke during his sometimes tense Q&A with the press, who wanted to know about Mr. Burnett’s controversial use of body doubles and restaged incidents during “Survivor” as well as accusations that the first edition was “fixed.”
“I’m not about to give away Mark Burnett’s trade secrets,” Mr. Gadinsky said at one point. “No comment,” he said about body doubles at another. “Survivor” veteran Rudy Boesch, a participant in the new series, repeated his contention that the original “Survivor” was “not fixed.”
Mr. Boesch said, “some stuff” was staged in the new series, which is a competition among military and police professionals. He later explained that he had meant, “We had to make sure people were in a [straight] line [for the cameras]. … The actual operations were not staged.”
* Actress Shannen Doherty, long a tabloid favorite, came to talk about “Another Day,” her new USA movie of which she is both star and executive producer. But of course the critics were more interested in hearing about her court-mandated dangers-of-alcohol lectures to schoolchildren and the behind-the-scenes controversies that led to her departure from “Charmed.”
“It’ll be a pretty quick session, won’t it?” she said, declining to discuss either issue.
* Jennifer Saunders (Edina in “Absolutely Fabulous”) was one of several performers to appear by satellite hookup. She was in London with Jon Plowman, the show’s executive producer, to announce that the cult series would be back on Comedy Central with six new episodes. In the new “Ab Fab,” Edina will have her own TV production company, called Radical TV, which is in “almost preproduction” on a quiz show called “Have I Got Shoes for You.” There also will be a botox episode, a trip-to-Paris episode, an Edina-has-sex episode and a menopause episode, Ms. Saunders said.
* Court TV was one of the few networks to bring substantive new programming to TCA’s first days, announcing “I, Detective” and “Body of Evidence” at its presentation. The former is an interactive real-mystery quiz, and the latter is a look at the case histories of a real-life forensic profiler. Publisher Harold Evans also was on hand to tout a new special about crime photography, “Shots in the Dark,” which will include JFK autopsy photos and Nicole Simpson crime-scene shots never before seen, as well as other images from sensational cases.
* There’s some talk in Pasadena that future TCAs, which heretofore have been organized on a network-by-network basis, with the cable nets all grouped with other cable nets and the broadcast networks all presenting together, should be vertically organized.
Under the current system, the Turner cable channels, for example, had an afternoon to themselves, then many of the same Turner executives were obliged to return on another day for The WB, which is part of the broadcast-network portion of TCA. Similarly, CBS and UPN are separated out from Viacom’s MTV, BET and other cable networks. Under the system that’s being contemplated, all of Viacom would be grouped together, as would all of Turner Broadcasting.