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MSNBC Schedules Alan Keyes Talk Show

Television*The onetime presidential candidate and outspoken conservative will join a mix of voices on the cable channel.

January 08, 2002|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Signaling that it's not about to be left behind in the war for cable news channel talent, MSNBC has hired conservative former presidential candidate Alan Keyes to anchor a nightly talk show.

In what could shape up as a battle for conservative viewers, the opinionated former radio talk show host and diplomat will be pitted at 7 p.m. against Greta Van Susteren, who last week was hired away from CNN to anchor a show for Fox News Channel.

The 51-year-old Keyes comes with a potential built-in audience of fans loyal to his message decrying the moral decay in America, a point of view quite distinct from Van Susteren, who was one of the leading proponents on TV against impeaching President Clinton. There is already speculation that viewers of Fox, with its reputation for giving more air time than other channels to conservative voices, will be put off by her show and might find Keyes an alternative.

Keyes--whose Washington, D.C.-based show, "Alan Keyes Is Making Sense," begins Jan. 21--also will be up against CNN's new high-profile newscast anchored by Aaron Brown, making the hour an intense battleground for the relatively small but dedicated news channel audience. By some ratings measures, Fox and CNN are essentially neck and neck during the East Coast prime-time hours, with MSNBC drawing a smaller but advertiser-friendly younger audience. Fox and CNN declined to address the competition issue.

When executives at MSNBC began talking to Keyes several weeks ago, "we did not know Fox was going to program one of the leading Clinton supporters at [7 p.m.]," said Erik Sorenson, MSNBC's president and general manager, referring to Van Susteren, whose new show will debut in February.

In the musical chairs that has lately characterized the cable news wars, Van Susteren's show takes the place of a program that had been hosted by Paula Zahn, until CNN lured her away in September. Zahn has significantly improved CNN's ratings in the 4-7 a.m. timeslot. And while CNN and Fox have both seen major morning viewership spikes since Sept. 11, Zahn is now edging out "Fox and Friends."

Separately, Sorenson said MSNBC had been looking for a new anchor to round out its evening lineup, which also includes newscasts anchored by Brian Williams and Ashleigh Banfield, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Previously, the hour featured a taped program called "Headliners and Legends," but news executives felt that live topical programming was more timely, given the continuing story of the war.

MSNBC looked for someone "provocative and iconoclastic," according to Sorenson, and Keyes was "the most intriguing" name on the list. Keyes was a Reagan-era deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who ran for president in 1996 and 2000. He wrote "Our Character, Our Future: Reclaiming America's Moral Destiny."

Keyes fits fairly easily into MSNBC's lineup, which is known for having a mix of political commentators. In the past, these have included Republican Ollie North and Clinton advisor Paul Begala.

On another front, CNN pulled a promotional ad for Zahn that described her as "sexy." The promo, which wasn't approved by CNN executives, was taken off the air after just one day, and CNN will change its approval process for ads.

CNN News Group Chairman Walter Isaacson said in a statement: "It was a major blunder by our promotions department....I am outraged and so is Paula, who has spent more than 20 years proving her credibility day in and day out."

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