Like others before him, Jonathan Klein plans to emphasize storytelling in prime time in his new role as president of CNN/U.S.
He also hopes to tap into the fact that CNN’s staff is “tired of being beat,” he said in a phone interview with TelevisionWeek last week. While Mr. Klein, 46, is developing a strategy, he’s also well aware that the revolving door at CNN has a history of hitting high-ranking editorial executives on the backside almost as soon as they step in.
“I hope to at least wedge my foot in the revolving door,” said Mr. Klein, the former CBS News executive and founder of the pioneer broadband news service The FeedRoom, a day after he was named president of CNN/U.S. He will be based in New York and is expected to keep the talent lineup as is, at least for the time being.
At well-established water coolers at CNN, the betting is that if Mr. Klein cannot make it happen for CNN before the short attention span snaps again, CNN News Group President Jim Walton may be the next executive escorted to the revolving door.
Princell Hair lasted 14 months as executive VP and general manager of CNN/U.S. before Mr. Klein took the reins, and Rick Kaplan had the top news job from 1997 to 2000. Between Mr. Kaplan and Mr. Hair, the shots were called by a handful of people, including Walter Isaacson and CNN veterans Sid Bedingfield and Teya Ryan. Indeed, Mr. Klein is the latest in a lengthening line of executive conscripts to take up the quest for CNN’s Holy Grail: storytelling. CNN sees its approach to the news as a high-minded alternative to that of Fox News Channel. Fox’s stem-winding, one-of-a-kind personalities, from Bill O’Reilly on down, has made it a viewer magnet so powerful that it has proved twice this year that it can outdraw its cable rivals and as many as two broadcast rivals combined on some big-event nights.
Mr. Klein characterized CNN’s prime-time stable as “a collection of very accomplished people who often tell good stories and could probably tell more of them. I think the shows tend to do an awful lot of reporting of the stories of the day. I’m not sure the prime-time audience wants or needs to have a newscast of record every hour. The prime-time audience loves stories.”
The prime-time audience is the most lucrative. But Mr. Walton dismissed revenue as his reason for the executive change. He said CNN is having its biggest financial year ever, but declined to be more specific, merely saying that the CNN News Group is expected to show 35 percent profit growth this year. CNN’s prime-time viewership also is higher than it has ever been in the network’s 24-year history-but its corporate self-esteem is not.
For nearly 14 competition-free years, CNN was able to proudly cultivate the image of the TV news model of the future. Then Fox News Channel launched in October 1996 and would, in a dizzying handful of years, shatter any CNN illusions that the early bird gets to keep the juiciest worm.
Mr. Klein was at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters for the announcement of his hiring Nov. 22.
“I walked into a place that is just tired of being beat. That’s what I’m going to hope to tap into,” he said the next day after landing back in New York. He was headed for the grand new Time Warner Center in New York, which has evolved into the home of the prime-time programs and personalities-Anderson Cooper, Paula Zahn, Aaron Brown-on which hang CNN’s highest hopes of regaining its lost luster and building competitive muscle. “American Morning” and “Daybreak” also originate from New York, as does “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”
The decision to base Mr. Klein in New York sets a significant precedent and sends shivers down the old guard’s spine in Atlanta, where the more mundane business of news gathering and programming four weekday and most weekend hours dominates.
Atlanta also is the home of a systemic inertia that has persistently stymied any attempts to reprogram CNN’s natural instincts since the 1997 hiring of former ABC News executive Mr. Kaplan. Mr. Kaplan lasted until 2000 at CNN and is now president of third-ranked MSNBC, whose prime time is, for the first time in its eight-year history, showing real growth that does not completely evaporate between big, breaking news stories. It has also narrowed some gaps between itself and gained ratings ground on CNN.
The most recent casualty of CNN’s executive not-so-merry-go-round, Mr. Hair, moves from executive VP and general manager of CNN/U.S. to senior VP of program and talent development, CNN News Group, a change he was not informed of until the Friday before it was announced publicly.
The Atlanta-based Mr. Hair now reports to New York-based CNN News Group Executive VP Ken Jautz-something he also didn’t learn until the Friday before Mr. Klein’s hire was announced. Mr. Jautz, a trusted Walton team player, will oversee Atlanta-based CNN Headline News, among other duties. Both Mr. Jautz and Mr. Klein report to the Atlanta-based Mr. Walton.
Mr. Klein’s arrival may have put talk of rejiggering CNN’s lineup in neutral for a while. “Jim has done me the favor of not handing me any set of facts. I’m free to deal the cards as I see fit,” Mr. Klein said, sounding not at all daunted by odds against CNN’s chief editorial executives.
The reviews on Mr. Klein’s record are mixed. He pushed the reality envelope at CBS with “Before Your Eyes,” a TV-movie format that included celebrity narration, but failed to save Bryant Gumbel’s “Public Eye” newsmagazine before leaving CBS News in 1998, the year he would start The FeedRoom.
His longtime friend and FeedRoom successor, President Bart Feder, said, “He’s gotten the company to a very good place.”
David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, would have joined The FeedRoom a few years ago had Mr. Klein succeeded in recruiting him.
“His heart and his head are clearly in a good place. He’s eager. He’s full of ideas. He gets what we do. He loves news,” said Mr. Bohrman, who seconded Mr. Klein’s admission that there will be a learning curve on the realities of the relentless pace of cable news.