Isaacson Out As CNN CEO

After 18 months on the job, CNN News Group chairman and CEO Walter Isaacson said last week he will resign in May to take the CEO position at the Aspen Group, a think tank.

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. CEO Jamie Kellner tapped Cable News Network president and chief operating officer Jim Walton to replace Isaacson. But Walton will not have the chairman and CEO titles held by Isaacson — he will be president of CNN News Group, comprised of CNN, Headline News, the CNN News Source syndicated news service, CNN International and its regional international channels.

Isaacson departs CNN at a crucial point in the network's history. Rival Fox News Channel has a firm hold on first place in the all-news ratings battle, and CNN is also focused on preparing for a possible war in Iraq. CNN built its reputation and audience on coverage of the last war in Iraq — the Persian Gulf War in 1991 — and the network is looking to the next possible conflict there to drive ratings.

Under Isaacson's leadership, CNN added more personality-driven news programs to its schedule, such as the 10 p.m. Newsnight With Aaron Brown
and the 8 p.m. Connie Chung Tonight. Isaacson also recruited former Fox News anchor Paula Zahn for a new morning show, American Morning With Paula Zahn.

The changes failed to drive growth for CNN last year. While executives emphasized last week that the network is performing better in ratings than it did in 1995 — the year before Fox News and MSNBC entered the race — CNN's ratings have fallen nonetheless.

Primetime ratings for CNN fell 10 percent in 2002, to a 0.9 Nielsen Media Research average rating. Meanwhile, CNN's total-day average fell 17 percent to a 0.5. Fox News gained 20 percent in primetime, finishing the year with a 1.2 average rating, while its total-day average increased 17 percent to a 0.7 rating.

Isaacson, a print-journalism veteran who was editorial director at Time Inc. before joining CNN in July 2001, has a much different background than Walton, his successor.

'Aware of strengths'

Walton is a 22-year CNN veteran, and he spent most of those years producing sports content for CNN, eventually working his way up to the position of president of the now-defunct CNN/Sports Illustrated network.

As the head of CNN News Group, Walton said he would stress teamwork. "I try to be aware of my strengths and I try to be aware of my weaknesses, and I try to surround myself with people who are stronger than me in certain areas," he said. "And I try to encourage and push them and get them to go where they need to go."

Walton said he doesn't plan to make any significant changes to CNN's schedule or programming strategy, which is overseen by general manager Teya Ryan.

During the last year, CNN and Turner officials have held merger discussions with ABC News.

Kellner said last week that Isaacson's decision will not affect those negotiations, which have broken off. "We are not engaged in discussion right now, nor will we be for probably six weeks," he said.