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Klein Finding CNN’s Voice

Jun 13, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Now that Jonathan Klein is six months into the job of president of CNN/U.S., he said it’s time to let the massive changes he has implemented “settle in and take effect.”

“Any show needs a good half a year to a year to find its sea legs,” said the former CBS News and FeedRoom executive, who has the dubious distinction of being CNN’s fifth executive to top the operation in this millennium.

Already Mr. Klein has replaced executive producers of all the key CNN programs. He has collapsed signature shows. He has cut veterans loose. He has reassigned familiar faces. He has commissioned big theme weeks, including crime and CNN’s 25th anniversary. He has declared war on shout fests and Michael Jackson mania. He has ordered the news network’s daytime axis to be tilted from Atlanta to Washington. He has made bloggers into CNN regulars. He has inserted a CNN International hour, “Your World Today,” into the middle of CNN’s day.

Last week he announced that Bob Costas, the prototypical NBC sportscaster, had joined the CNN family as main substitute host for “Larry King Live”-a deal that helps CNN parent company Time Warner amortize the cost of its seven-figure contract with Mr. Costas for the show “Costas Now.” Mr. Costas was quickly scheduled to sit in for Mr. King June 12 on a live “Larry King Live” instead of the usual Sunday night repeat.

While he has made a wide range of changes, Mr. Klein said his work has only just begun.

“We’re early in Phase 1,” he said. “We are trying to emphasize what we do best, which is to cover the news and the people behind the news. “We’re trying to send a signal to our viewers about who we are, as well as send a signal to our organization about who we want to be. That’s what ties together all of these moves.”

Now, he said, “It’s a process of finding the network’s voice. CNN needs to refine its voice.”

Until the network does so, Mr. Klein’s is the off-air voice, the translator and promoter, of CNN. He’s a smooth talker. His willingness to make changes his predecessors didn’t and to talk to reporters about those changes and any number of topics has made him a darling of media reporters worn down by a succession of CNN chiefs who either could not or would not articulate how CNN, which had frittered away its position of leadership, was going to get out of the shadow of Fox News Channel.

Still, Mr. Klein could be considered too smooth to catch at times.

For instance, when asked which changes had been the easiest to effect he said: “There’s been a low coefficient for drag.”

Asked for clarification, he added, “I know the organization is behind the effort to renew our relationship with the audience and get back to being more of what we always were.”

Sometimes his pronouncements don’t seem to jibe. He has rued CNN’s focus on the Michael Jackson trial, saying, “All the audience cares about is the beginning and the end. They don’t want to see all that stuff [in between].

“It’s hard to bring much passion to the same picture of the same guy getting out of the same limo wearing the same outfit holding the same umbrella over his head every day. There’s no passion to be found there. It’s repetitive. It’s background noise.”

But last week, while the Jackson jury was deliberating, CNN’s prime-time shows did multiple stories on the circus outside the courtroom, how a reporter crosses into the media pen (show credentials to guard), and how many times the self-proclaimed King of Pop has gone to the hospital since the proceedings began.

On Monday, June 6, “World News Today” squeezed a Jackson story (as well as a Tony Awards story) between a story on the devastation in Darfur and an interview with the author of a book on surviving apartheid in South Africa. The next day the international newscast would include an interview with a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.

“I think there is something today called a world citizen,” he said.

Mr. Klein has refined an old mantra of founder Ted Turner, who declared that news was the star at CNN. “For us the news is the most important personality,” Mr. Klein said. “CNN covers news in the present tense.”

But Larry King had Nancy Grace, his CNN Headline News counterpart and former main substitute host, on “Live” last week to promote her new book. (“Why not?” asked Mr. Klein. “She’s an extremely fascinating person.”) And the network devoted hours of airtime two weeks ago to observing its own 25th anniversary.

The anniversary week saw CNN’s overall viewership for total day and prime time lag 22 percent year to year, according to Nielsen Media Research. Viewership among the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that brings top ad dollars in the TV news world dropped 28 percent and 30 percent below year-ago levels for total day and prime time, respectively, for that week.

Even facing some of the same year-to-year pressures, Fox News Channel averaged more than double CNN’s audience in both categories for total day and prime time that week.

For the year to date, according to data from Nielsen Media Research, CNN is down 1 percent year to year to 452,000 average viewers for total day and down 3 percent to 771,000 in prime time. The 25 to 54 performance is off 1 percent for total day but up 6 percent in prime time.

“Larry King Live,” CNN’s top draw, is down 6 percent in total viewers (to about 1.2 million) year to date but up 10 percent in the 25 to 54 demo. However, Mr. King’s average of 970,000 total viewers in May goes into the ratings books as his worst month in four years.

Year to date, “Anderson Cooper 360” is up 19 percent in viewers and 7 percent in the demo, while “Paula Zahn Now” is up 4 percent in viewers and 14 percent in the demo. (Former “PrimeTime Thursday” executive producer David Doss and former “20/20” executive producer Victor Neufeld were hired last week to run “360” and “Now,” respectively.)

Mr. Klein suggests that to judge CNN’s performance by ratings is “a really narrow way of looking at it.”

He also brushes aside the question of whether all the talk about “enlightening viewers” and “covering the news and the people behind it” might make CNN sound like eat-your-vegetables TV news compared with some of the alternatives.

“We’re showcasing bright, engaging minds,” he said. “We’re showcasing people who love ideas more than themselves. We’re showcasing analysts and reporters who have a passion for digging into the news and the people behind the news. And that’s just fascinating. That doesn’t feel like spinach to me.”

The Internet bulletin boards have been buzzing with debate about Mr. Klein’s decisions to let Bill Hemmer go and replace him with Miles O’Brien as Soledad O’Brien’s co-anchor on “American Morning,” and to shift irascible Jack Cafferty to “The Situation Room” when it debuts in mid-summer as a Washington-based three-hour news block featuring some of the survivors of “Inside Politics” and “Crossfire.”

But Mr. Klein pointed to the hire of Mr. Costas as a succinct example of where he thinks CNN is heading.

“He has a broad range of interests and simply sitting in a chair covering sports doesn’t completely scratch the itch,” Mr. Klein said. “Why wouldn’t he do it with us?”