Behind the Headlines At Revamped News

Atlanta— There are still 10 days remaining before the Aug. 6 debut of the revamped CNN Headline News. But it feels like show time.

About 40 staffers are milling around the network's new high-tech studio here and an adjoining control room, acting as if they are about to shoot the real deal.

"Ten minutes to go," the floor director shouts at 11:50 a.m. "Keep us honest," another staffer calls out.

Around the corner from the new studio sits the $3.7 million digital studio that Cable News Network built for Headline News in 1999, where a sole anchor records the day's news.

The network touted that studio in 1999, but after watching ratings for Headline News fizzle, CNN is relaunching it from scratch, backed by the media and marketing muscle of its parent, media giant AOL Time Warner Inc.

"It wasn't so much that there was anything wrong with it," said new CNN Headline News executive vice president and general manager Teya Ryan. "It served a great purpose in its time."

Time is of the essence to the younger audience the revamped Headline News hopes to attract. The network's new format, replete with a new look, anchor team and graphics package — as well as a broader base of stories that range from entertainment to the environment — is aimed at "time warriors." This harried lot, CNN hopes, is interested in picking up news pieces on the run.

Currently, the average Headline News viewer is 50 years old. Ryan said the revamped network will target adults 25 to 54.

Back in the new studio, a few minutes remain before the noon rehearsal. New daytime anchor Rudi Baktiar picks up a huge can of hairspray, touching up her hair, while Charles Molineaux adjusts his tie. The old studio used only one camera, but the new set has 17 cameras fixed on the anchors, all but one of which are manipulated by technicians from the control room.

Molineaux introduces the lead story — the sentencing of 14-year-old Florida boy Nathaniel Brazill, who shot and killed his teacher. He hands the story off to Jacque Reid, who gives the details of the sentencing.

Off camera, at anchor desks on opposite sides of the studio, daytime sports anchor Ray D'Alessio chews gum as he reviews his script, while new environmental reporter Sharon Collins readies her own report.

After delivering her first report, Reid moves behind a sleek black Dell computer located near the anchor desk and scans the news wires for updates on the Brazill case. Later, she'll return to the anchor desk to report reaction from lawyers in the case.

Reid is assigned the "Big Story" of the day — one of the new elements of the revamped Headline News. It's similar to MSNBC's daytime strategy, in which lead anchors check in with reporters in the studio for frequent updates on the hot news of the day, shooting the interaction with wide camera angles of the studio.

Mollineaux and Baktiar fly through a business story and a segment about a FluMist vaccine that could eliminate flu shots, and pass the baton to D'Alessio, whose one-liners may remind viewers of ESPN.

"Lock your doors, grab your children and run for cover," D'Alessio says as a clip runs of a home run by San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds.

Longtime Headline News sports voice Jerome Jurenovich isn't a part of the new network. Viewers never saw Jurenovich, who provided a voiceover for sports highlights.

The channel's viewers will see and hear other changes: In the past, one anchor handled an entire half-hour newscast; now up to four anchors will work each show, and crack jokes between stories — a staple of local newscasts.

Ryan has hired at least nine new anchors for the new Headline News, including former NYPD Blue
star Andrea Thompson, who joined the company after a one-year reporting stint at KRQE-TV in Albuquerque, N.M. CNN took a lot of heat for hiring Thompson due to her relative lack of journalism experience, a criticism she doesn't buy into.

"I think lots of other people think I have something to prove, but I feel that I did a great job in Albuquerque," she said. "I broke a number of national stories while I was there, and beat the pants off the competition."

All of the new anchors are fairly attractive, another common trait of broadcast journalism. But Ryan insisted that looks didn't play a role in selecting the list of new anchors, whose ranks also include Robin Meade, an Emmy award-winning reporter from NBC's Chicago station and a Miss America finalist in 1993.

"Is that a crime, to have good-looking people? I would never say that that is the criteria," Ryan said. "I'm just hiring people that I find interesting."

Although Thompson has spent most of her career in front of the camera, she said it took some time to get used to looking directly at the lens.

"I was waiting for somebody to throw something at my head," she said. "In acting that's called breaking the fourth wall, and you don't do it except as a device in a Neil Simon play."

But Thompson appeared at ease in her rehearsal tapes. And like her predecessor — longtime Headline News primetime anchor Lynne Russell, who resigned in May — Thompson has a knack for flirting with the camera.

Thompson winked at the camera as she introduced a story about hot peppers.

"Habaneros peppers are six times hotter than a jalapeno and really tasty," she told viewers.

Some veteran CNN anchors said they were skeptical at first about the new talent, but they are pleased overall with the changes.

"I think there may have been some misgivings about having only three years ago jettisoned a lot of the staff, when we went to a recorded format," said Chuck Roberts, who anchored the first Headline News program in 1982, and will now anchor the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. live show. "We lost a lot of people.

"It seems like we could have kept those people all this time and not had this huge rebuilding process that is so tumultuous for us."

Out of the gate, the new format offers live news for nine hours a day, a total that will eventually be extended to 18 hours. That marks quite change of pace for Roberts. From the network's inception until 1999, it ran 10 minutes of live news during each half-hour. Since then, the entire program had been taped.

"The last two years, we could, if the reference in the copy didn't precisely match the video, we could redo it and roll the video down to the point at which the word matched the reference, and we could redo that five or six times until it was absolutely perfect," he said. "But the people at home didn't appreciate that nuance. They were looking for a livelier, more contemporary show.

"And is this a response to competition? Hell yes, we know that," Roberts added. "We're not that naive."

Headline News has a lot of ground to make up in the all-news pack. Of the five cable news channels, it ranks dead last, averaging a 0.2 total-day rating and 153,000 viewers during July, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

"Quite frankly, because of Headline News' anemic ratings situation right now, we sort of have a license to try some things, and that's exciting for me," said Miles O'Brien, who will anchor the live 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot with Thompson.

CNN has recently taken a lot of heat from television critics who say the new network will soften the news with segments on health, pop culture and music. O'Brien refuted the pundits, insisting the new network isn't offering "cotton candy."

"Instead of cotton candy, think of nouveau cuisine
. It can be great sustenance, but it also looks pretty good on the plate," O'Brien said.

The on-screen graphics are another key component of the revised format. These elements take up more than one-third of the screen, offering updated stock quotes, news headlines, weather and sports information.

CNN has hired more than a dozen "data wranglers" to track down information to accompany each story, and to offer bullet points of related news that the anchor doesn't read in his or her copy.

For a story on the Chandra Levy case, data wrangler Kristina Park wrote three bullets to accompany the story: "24-year-old; Last seen April 30; $225,000 reward."

"We have learned that it requires extraordinary coordination between a lot of people not to repeat things and that it is possible to contrive a list of three absolutely accurate facts that don't go with what has been written," said Headline News senior executive producer Don Smith. "We have learned that it is very hard to be brief and accurate and interesting."

Part of the strategy, Smith said, is that if viewers aren't following the video of the anchors presenting the news, they'll find something on the bottom of the screen that will keep them from changing channels.

Ryan said she expects ratings will improve with the new format, but wouldn't predict how soon. "You've got to give time for this to bake and gel and catch on and grow."