CNN Ups Stakes for Cable Players

Aug 8, 2005  •  Post A Comment

When CNN introduces “The Situation Room” today, one of the remote locations scheduled to be visited during the new three-hour weekday afternoon news block, hosted by Wolf Blitzer, is the NORAD command center in Cheyenne Mountain, Colo. Using high-tech equipment and communications, the Department of Defense installation monitors what is happening in the sky and on the ground over a wide area.

“There are rooms like this all over the world,” said Sam Feist, senior executive producer of political programming for CNN and executive producer of “The Situation Room,” which will originate from Washington and which he said will “cover powerful people and important stories. That’s what is going to be at the heart of this program.”

The idea of watching the world from one location is also at the heart of this restructuring of the way CNN does business. Instead of a series of shorter shows filled with talking heads or news anchors cutting to correspondents, Mr. Blitzer is to oversee a constant stream of news, reports from correspondents and even what some bloggers have to say that day. The high-tech set with a wall of video monitors is intended to give the impression that whatever of import is happening that day, wherever it is taking place, will show up on CNN.

The show, airing from 3-6 p.m. (ET) weekdays, will be organized into three one-hour blocks, with the first hour covering political news, the second focusing on security issues and the third about international news. When big news breaks, however, all of that structure will go away and CNN will use all of its resources to focus on what is happening at that moment.

The idea is to give viewers the impression that a worldwide team is ready to take them to the scene of the action in seconds. While it may not be a new idea, the packaging is intended to make it feel fresh and important.

“We’re giving ourselves the freedom to chase the news,” Mr. Feist said.

The news, be it from Washington, Wall Street or Baghdad, will be hashed over by the anchors, reporters and CNN bloggers. CNN has assigned a sizable contingent of correspondents, expert analysts and pundits to deal with a smorgasbord of news possibilities. The commentators, all familiar to regular CNN watchers, will include Paul Begala, James Carville, Victoria Clarke, Jeff Greenfield, Bill Schneider, Carlos Watson and many others.

Last week CNN did a dress rehearsal, using the crash of an Air France plane in Toronto as a subject. The weather team reported on the turbulent conditions that preceded the jet’s attempt to land. Network bloggers quickly found the flight number. A reporter on the scene described the black smoke billowing from the wreckage just beyond the end of the runway.

When “Situation Room” anchor Mr. Blitzer said, “I’ve been saying that sometimes this is not going to be pretty,” he wasn’t referring to the staggering ratings gap between once-invincible CNN and the now arguably uncatchable Fox News Channel. Mr. Blitzer was talking about the “mandate to get the news on the air and do it in a kind of real-time way. It’s an old-fashioned concept we’ve refined.”

The video walls, which have become a sort of signature element associated with David Bohrman, CNN’s VP of news and production and the Washington bureau chief, may look newfangled, but “The Situation Room’s” logo has a more old-fashioned look.

The aesthetic seems Cold War-like to a reporter (the Earth’s land masses sometimes saturated with blood red, sometimes with teal blue). But CNN means to suggest, with the circle of stars and the custom-created title font that evokes both modern type and the Russian alphabet, the real-life situation rooms that are part of the world on which it is keenly focused in the afternoon.

That new block occupies the hours that previously housed “Inside Politics,” “Wolf Blitzer Reports” and “Crossfire.”

Mr. Feist declined to confirm rumors that CNN hoped to woo NBC’s up-and-coming White House correspondent David Gregory to preside over “The Situation Room.” “It’s always been the show intended for Wolf Blitzer,” Mr. Feist said.

In July CNN averaged 378,000 viewers in the 3 p.m. hour, 392,000 viewers in the 4 p.m. hour and 486,000 viewers in the 5 p.m. hour.

In the same time span, Fox News Channel’s “Studio B With Shepard Smith” averaged 1.14 million viewers, “Your World With Neil Cavuto” averaged 964,000 viewers and “The Big Story With John Gibson” averaged 1.08 million viewers.