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CNN Facelift Elevates Its Stars

Cable News Network is close to finalizing a new primetime schedule-with which the channel has been experimenting for about a month now-that spotlights in-house talent such as Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Greenfield and Greta Van Susteren.

The programming revamp is just the start of "aggressive changes" that top CNN management has warned employees to brace for in the next few weeks as the network's parent, Time Warner Inc., gets ready to merge with America Online Inc.

As CNN's proposed primetime lineup now stands, Blitzer would have his own half-hour show at 8 p.m. weeknights, followed by legal specialist Van Susteren at 8:30 p.m. Larry King Live, one of CNN's few destination programs, would remain at 9 p.m.

"Nothing is set in stone yet," said CNN/U.S. executive vice president and general manager Sid Bedingfield. "We are still experimenting. But clearly, I want to find personalities that can connect with the viewer."

Plans for the 10 p.m. slot are the furthest from being nailed down. During the past few weeks, CNN has tried several different programming approaches in that time period.

Some nights, Greenfield has hosted a half-hour show that starts at 10 p.m. Other nights, CNN has aired either half-hour or 60-minute versions of The Spin Room,
hosted by liberal Bill Press and conservative Tucker Carlson, in that time slot.

"We want programs that are newsy, but also have live, interesting interaction," Bedingfield said in describing CNN's new approach to primetime. "It will still at its core have good reporting, but with a healthy dose of live interaction."

It remains to be seen if NewsStand,
the newsmagazine brainchild of Rick Kaplan, the former CNN president who exited this summer, will survive. It had filled the 10 p.m. hour.

CNN has historically eschewed singling out or spotlighting its on-air talent. The old 8 p.m. newscast, for example, had three anchors: Blitzer, Joie Chen and Jim Moret.

But that attitude has changed as CNN tries to bolster its sagging ratings-even during slow news periods-and fend off rising competitors such as Fox News Channel and MSNBC, which have built their primetime around specific talent.

"We're developing new programs with single anchors, 30 minutes with live reporting," a CNN spokeswoman said. "We're taking people away from the anchor desk to report, not just be news readers. It's better suited for them, and it makes for more compelling television."

CNN began its primetime experiment during Election Week in early November.

Bedingfield made no bones about the fact that CNN is looking to make better use of its marquee talent, which is why it is going to more single anchors in primetime.

"People watch people, and I want to give people distinct personalities," Bedingfield said.

And he believes CNN has the right on-air talent on which to build.

"Wolf Blitzer can create a really interesting newscast," Bedingfield said. "Jeff Greenfield is amazing, in the breadth he brings to stories, and good writing."

And Bedingfield credited Van Susteren as being as "sharp" as anyone on television and a talented interviewer.

CNN's talent roster is also changing. Longtime anchor Bernard Shaw is leaving and the network is currently in contract negotiations with international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

"We think the world of Christiane and are in the midst of advanced discussions for keeping her at CNN for years to come," the CNN spokeswoman said.

In these days of tough competition, even King-the network's ratings king-is seeing his primetime position challenged. Last Monday, Dec. 4 [the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Florida election recount], for example, FNC's The O'Reilly Factor
outperformed Larry King Live.The O'Reilly Factor
posted a 3.1 rating, or 1.7 million households, versus King's 1.4 rating, or 1.1 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research. Although the two shows don't compete head-to-head in the same time slot (Bill O'Reilly's show is at 8 p.m.; King's airs at 9 p.m.), O'Reilly's strong showing isn't good news for CNN.

Change, and most likely upheaval and potential layoffs, are certainly in the wind for CNN. In late November, chairman Tom Johnson and president Philip Kent sent staffers a memo that said the network was planning "aggressive change" in terms of its global newsgathering approach.

The memo also said, "We will consider the talents, skills and potential of each employee so that we can best match our people to the career opportunities across our services and best serve CNN as we prepare for the future as a key part of AOL/Time Warner."