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Is Success in the Stars at CNN?

With the latest piece being last week's complete reboot of its morning show, in about one year CNN has blown up virtually its entire lineup. Rival Roger Ailes of Fox News says CNN hosts like Wolf Blitzer aren't stars, and the ratings say that shouting from one side of the aisle is the way to Nielsen gold. But whether you want to call it consistent or stubborn, CNN's strategy is still to stick to its knitting and try and play down the middle. In a wide-ranging interview over two separate chats, CNN/U.S. executive VP Ken Jautz talks to B&C staff writer Andrea Morabito about why he turned over the on-air talent, whether journalists need to be TV stars and his plans for the network's new lineup. An edited transcript of those conversations follows.

You've been in the job more than a year now. How has it compared to what you were expecting?

I suppose it's been a very busy year. Probably versus what I was expecting, there have been many stories this year that one could not have foreseen. I expected it to be busy, but I think it's probably even busier than I would have foreseen.

On the more internal rather than external front, it's been a year of much change and much revamping at CNN and a year of a lot of progress….If you look back a year ago, I'd say there were questions surrounding CNN, questions about what CNN stands for. There was some commentary, is CNN becoming less relevant? And most of all, the question that strikes me is could CNN continue to be successful in a cable news landscape that seemed to reward a partisan or an ideological approach? And we very firmly rejected that one needs to be partisan or ideological, and we feel we should be and we are aggressively independent. That is, we are not at all ideological and we are challenging to all sides and all political parties and all institutions.

[Another big goal] for us for the year was basically to revamp our lineup. And we've done that, just about every show or every hour is either a different show or a different host of that hour than it was a year ago. And we've created a lineup of anchors and hosts who are all proven journalists, again showcasing and underscoring the commitment to quality journalism.

In July, CNN announced a shakeup of its primetime lineup with time-period changes for Wolf Blitzer, John King and Anderson Cooper and a new show for Erin Burnett. Why change all those hours at once, instead of a more measured approach?

I would say it's been a measured approach, in that this was done gradually over the course of a year. Secondly, the idea was to create a cohesive lineup that had certain commonalities among the shows and certain differences.

Is that why Eliot Spitzer's show ultimately did not work on the network, because of his background as a politician, not a journalist?

We do feel that we wanted a lineup that was cohesive and focused on journalism and on news coverage.

So do you view Spitzer as a mistake, and/or what did you learn from it?

I prefer to look forward rather than look backward at people who were with us and are no longer with us for whatever reason. But to address the spirit of the question without addressing particulars of this talent or that who is no longer at CNN, I'm going to repeat that yes, I don't know if it's lessons learned from a particular experience, but our goal and our principle has been to construct a lineup of people who are proven journalists, proven both inside and outside of a studio, and people who allow us to showcase our underlying principles of quality journalism and aggressive independence, and people who are passionate about the news and do not either take a partisan agenda or are perceived to take a partisan agenda.

Roger Ailes recently told the AP why he thinks CNN can't compete with Fox News, saying that while someone like Wolf Blitzer is an excellent reporter, he's not a star. How do you respond to that?

We think that there is room for a fact-based, non-ideological network whose programming is focused on and based on quality journalism. We think in this day and age there are a lot of people who want and appreciate that. We think there are a lot of people who are tired of partisan, ideological carping. And therefore, I think that any of our principal hosts who are all experienced, solid journalists have a following and deserve to have a following, and a lot of people appreciate their skills.

But would you describe Wolf as a star? Do you prefer another term?

I'll repeat again that we aim to create a lineup of hosts who are proven journalists both in and out of the studio, who are excellent communicators and have a following. I'm not going to characterize it more.

But your tenure at HLN was defined by creating stars like Glenn Beck and Nancy Grace, and that had to be a consideration when your bosses picked you to run CNN. Based on your success there, do you think primetime needs “star anchors†to drive ratings?

Yes, I do. What I was commenting on was positioning of network and programming. As for people, I do think programming should be engaging and compelling and at times entertaining. Yes, one of the goals for us for the year was to create more distinctive and engaging programming. And I think we have done that. And we have done that partly through the lineup change, because I think many of our talent are in fact stars and very engaging hosts. Not only are they quality journalists or reporters, they are proven, as I said, inside and outside the studio and therefore they are engaging hosts and communicators.

You are the only major cable news network in repeats at 10 p.m. How committed are you to Anderson Cooper at 8 p.m.?

I'm very pleased with the way that has unfolded. With Anderson Cooper, our 8 o'clock ratings are up significantly, both in demo and total viewers, and our 10 p.m. ratings are doing well, they are up year-to-date. This has worked out well from a ratings point of view. I also think it's worked out from a programming and a " ow point of view. So we're happy with the lineup as it is.

What do you think of MSNBC flipping its 8 and 10 p.m. hours? Did you view it as a defensive move after moving Anderson Cooper to 8 p.m.?

I can't really comment on reasons for somebody else's move. But what I would point out is that CNN ratings, audience delivery in both the demo and in total day-viewers is ahead of MSNBC's year-to-date. Last year, it was not. But thinking long-term, two years from now, you still want him on your primetime schedule twice? We are very pleased with our primetime lineup. We do not foresee or are angling for changes to our primetime lineup at this time. I can't comment about hypotheticals two years down the road from now.

Has Anderson's daytime show had any negative effect on AC360?

No. We were supportive of Anderson's daytime show. Bear in mind that that daytime show is produced by a corporate cousin of ours and we work with them, Telepictures. We are pleased with the exposure he gets to other audiences, audiences and people and viewers who may not be regular or typical CNN viewers.

Can he keep up both shows over the long term?

He's been doing very well, yeah.

How are you feeling about the early ratings of Erin Burnett? They have dropped off sharply since the premiere.

She's been doing great. First of all, she's a terrific overall addition to the lineup. She has proven since the launch of her show that she's a smart and probing and challenging journalist, but she also shows quite a bit of humor and personality and informality and that makes her show more engaging. And from a numbers point of view, she improves on her lead-in most days, and overall has since she launched, so I'm quite pleased.

Burnett was criticized for her early coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests. How did you feel about her handling of the story?

I respect the fact that people will have different views and different reactions and different opinions on any story. I think it was good of her that she was one of the early ones on that story, that is she was one of the shows covering that story and taking the story seriously early on, before others did. And I also think it's good that she was down there herself covering the story.

CNN has stood by Piers Morgan amid concern from some about his possible connection to the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal. Do you feel that attention on him was warranted?

I can't really say whether it was warranted or not. I would say that Piers was very consistent in his public and private comments about that story and there was nothing for us to say. We had him on our own air and he was elsewhere talking about it, so we were very transparent with our viewers. But I do not think it had any significant impact on his show.

This year saw two big cable news personalities, Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, leave their networks and take their shows elsewhere. Do you feel those two are off the radar screen now?

I don't need to make comments on what other people are doing.

What do you think about what Current TV is trying to do? Is there room for another political/ news commentary cable network?

One of the points we've tried to underscore all year is that programming should be based on quality, fact-based journalism, not on ideology. In addition, we tried to broaden all our programs [in] daytime and primetime. And we're able to do that because we have the most extensive newsgathering resources, both internationally and domestically. Basically we do not want to be narrowly focused on political stories or the domestic political clashes of the day. Yes that's important, yes we cover politics, yes we cover politics as comprehensively as anyone else, and yes of course that's going to be a main thrust of coverage in the news space next year. That said, we're not limited to politics, we're not limited to domestic political kerfuf" es of the day and to a narrow approach to our programming and coverage. Therefore, I don't see that as a direct comparison to us.

Tell me about the new plan in the morning.

We're completely revamping our morning programming. And this you could view as the final piece in the lineup changes. Overall this program will be more conversational and interview-based. It will be broader than any of the other morning cable news shows. It will of course include political coverage, but not be narrowly focused on the political developments of the day. And it will bring the full range of CNN's newsgathering apparatus, both domestically and internationally, to bear.

The format sounds a lot likeMorning Joe. How is this show going to distinguish itself?

Broader, less political. We think there's an opportunity in that so much of the morning is narrowly focused on domestic politics and the political squabbling of the day. It will definitely not be an inside-the-Beltway feel or limitation.

How do you deal with constantly defending a few hours of your primetime lineup, which your company like to point out is a small part of the larger business at CNN?

It is true that CNN's traditional strength is with breaking news. One of the things I'm most pleased about this year is that we've also experienced ratings gains on non-breaking news days, on slower news days. And one of the goals and one the reasons that we wanted to evolve our programs to be more engaging and distinctive is to give people a reason to come to them on days when there is not big breaking news stories. So I think first of all, that's been one of the most successful and gratifying trends we've seen this year for CNN programming.

And secondly, we have been doing well at different parts of the day. We just continue to try to tell that part of the story. We think that it's important to provide good journalism, engaging programs throughout the day. A network's focus is not on three hours in primetime. The numbers that I pay attention to are total day numbers, first and foremost, far more so than only primetime numbers.

Would you consider another political debate show in the future?

We do provide opinion from various sides of an issue. We've attempted to move away from the he-said-she-said, down the middle journalism and programming. We do in fact provide more analysis and more opinion and more debate within these various programs. One of the things we have done with these shows also is that we have allowed the shows themselves to come to their own point of view on certain issues they are looking into. That point of view is based on their own reporting and based on fact and not based on ideology. A good example of that is one of the first changes that I made a year ago in coming into this was revamping the Anderson show, AC360, and we underscored much more the "Keeping Them Honest" segment, which basically is about aggressive independence, holding institutions and politicians and people accountable. That set the tone for the overall lineup.

Piers Morgan had already been signed to take over for Larry King when you came in. What mark have you tried to put on his program since taking over?

Piers Morgan was already set up and that that was already in progress and started and carried out in large but by a predecessor, but I was involved in the first meetings that Piers had here at CNN, so I accompanied that process both before I came into this job and then obviously launched the show after I came into the job. Two, I was very familiar with Piers' background and Piers before he came into this building because I lived in London when he was one of the youngest editors and national news figures in the country.

As for the show itself, we hired Jonathan Wald, who's an excellent partner for Piers and a very experienced EP. Like most shows, they evolve. At the very beginning, the focus was more on single-topic interviews throughout the whole hour, that's evolved into a more flexible format where some days we have multiple interviews in the hour and some days single interviews. We've also had Piers covering big stories of the day as well as interviews that were less on the news of the day. So we've demonstrated his versatility and he's been doing an excellent job. I'd be remiss if I didn't throw in that his ratings are about 30 percent higher in that time slot than they were last year. So he's doing a very good job and it's a very compelling program as well.

How have advertisers responded to the lineup change of having Anderson at 8 and 10?

You know I can't break out numbers specifically. It's been a good business year as well as a good programming year and a good year in news coverage. It has been a good business year, if you need me to be more specific, I'd say it's been a good year for advertisers as well. I don't think I can be more specific than that.

So you don't want to relay any anecdotal advertiser responses or be any more specific with numbers?

I will say that we have emphasized again our quality journalism, aggressive independence, non-ideological programming. And those concepts resonate well with advertisers.

And you can't say more specific than "well"?


Will Soledad keep doing her specials for CNN?

She will continue to do some documentaries, but her focus will be on her daily show. You can interpret from that that she'll be doing fewer documentaries, certainly. But she will be doing some documentaries because there's an established niche and she very much has established our franchises and her name in that area.

Will the new four-hour block be called American Morning or will you re-title it?

It will be one morning block. I do not have the answer for you right now whether it will be American Morning titled or not.

Explain the decision to put Soledad in the mornings.

This will be a more conversational and interview oriented, and I think particularly with her many documentaries in recent years, she has proven herself that she can talk to anybody, from all backgrounds and walks of life. She's a very good interviewer. This will not be a traditional prompter-driven format, as has been many morning shows, including many of our morning shows, so we think this will play to her strengths.

Soledad and Ashleigh and to some extent Zorida, they've all, again, the whole theme of all these hosts are journalists, they
are proven inside and outside studios. They're not just reporters, they're also engaging and compelling hosts, but they are proven inside and outside the studio. These three women all match that as well. Soledad for us has been on, you name the number of big domestic and international stories that she's covered for CNN in recent years, and Ashleigh has been covering major stories all around the world, domestically and internationally as well in recent years, for GMA and 20/20 and all kinds of other people. And Zorida, while she's principally been more in the studio in Chicago in recent years, she's also been out covering stories for her station, particularly focusing on health, in both Spanish-language television and English-language television. They have proven backgrounds but they have varied backgrounds.

What will happen to the AM staff, will they have to reapply for their jobs? Will you bring in a new production crew?

No. There's going to be a new EP.

Do you imagine having celebrity interviews?

Interviews, yes, both inside and outside -- meaning interviewing CNN experts, interviewing people from outside. Interviewing newsmakers, yes. Much broader, much more open.

And Ali Velshi, who has been anchoring American Morning, will no longer be a part of the show?

Ali will continue to be the business correspondent but he will do fact-checking segments across CNN programs, and this includes both daytime and primetime programs. He's very good at explaining, and he will help break down complex news stories of the day, whatever they may be. It's our wish to stand for more than breaking news. There are a lot of people in the past that still stay with CNN to be more substantive and more broad and more in-depth at the same time. And to provide more reason for people to come to CNN on the days when there is not breaking news. So that will be his CNN role. In addition to that, he's going to take on a CNNi role and have a daily show on CNNi.

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