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CNN's New Star Format Put to the Test

Television* The network hopes Connie Chung, debuting tonight, will shore up the personality approach--and ratings.

June 24, 2002|ELIZABETH JENSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Soon after Paula Zahn joined CNN in September, she was approached to be profiled on Lifetime's celebrity biography show "Intimate Portrait," a first for CNN. The news network moved up yet another rung public relations-wise in January, when People magazine inquired about who made the suit and shoes Connie Chung wore to the news conference announcing she was jumping to CNN from ABC.

As distressing as such fluff appears to some news purists at CNN, for other executives, the attention is proof that the network has arrived. Now, with "Connie Chung Tonight" finally launching today at 5 p.m., CNN just has to make the new star-driven format work.

It's a departure for a network that for two decades built a brand on disdaining personality, with a mantra that "news is the star." But CNN has been a network in search of a focus for some time, as it has slipped behind rival Fox News Channel in the ratings. Tapping into corporate synergy with shows branded with other AOL Time Warner properties, such as Time, People and Fortune magazines, didn't work. Nor did an attempt to turn some previously buttoned-up CNN anchors into chatty nighttime hosts. "The Spin Room," an attempt at opinion, fizzled.

So now CNN has returned to something in between, with a lineup of anchors in key morning and evening time periods who have more audience recognition but also network news polish. They don't shout, except on the late-afternoon "Crossfire," but they do have personalities.

Chung, who is 55 and married to talk-show host Maury Povich, even rated a new set in midtown Manhattan, with gleaming blond wood, brushed steel, a smooth gray leather sofa and a sophisticated orange and gray logo that's a far cry from the bare-bones look that has long marked the network.

At an estimated salary of more than $2 million per year, Chung isn't CNN's highest-paid star; that distinction goes to the nearly $7-million-a-year man Larry King, whose talk show has long led CNN's ratings. But King is a home-grown talent, who came to CNN in 1985 when it was an upstart and he was a radio host. Chung, whose resume includes sitting side by side at the "CBS Evening News" anchor desk with Dan Rather, is clearly CNN's biggest journalistic hire ever. It's a risk for her. She says the appeal of cable--where the audiences are still much smaller than at a broadcast network and where she'll work five nights per week--was "having my own program to do as I please." And, she says, after mastering the network newsmagazine formula, "I think I needed to wake up again and be bright-eyed again."

Zahn, a former CBS morning anchor, and Aaron Brown, an ABC News anchor and reporter, paved the way last year for CNN's transition; Zahn holding down CNN's morning and Brown following King at night. So far, the results are mixed, with both shows improving in their time periods but losing out to Fox News' edgier offerings.

Overall, however, with the war on terrorism provoking more audience interest in the news, CNN's 2002 viewership over the course of a day is up more than 60% on average compared to a year ago.

CNN executives say their task has been made easier by the route chosen by Fox and third-place MSNBC, which is remolding its own lineup to feature more political debate and loud opinion. "We become crystal-clear in people's minds at this point," says Teya Ryan, CNN's general manager. "The competition has so defined itself differently from us." Her definition of CNN: "We don't talk about the news; we gather the news."

How Chung will fit in will become clearer when the show launches. Her news credentials are strong: Since starting her career in 1969, she's been a correspondent and anchor at each of the three network news operations--CBS, NBC and ABC--as well as a local anchor at Los Angeles' KCBS-TV for seven years. She's best known for her high-profile interview "gets"--including Rep. Gary Condit (D-Ceres), and some gaffes (a controversial interview with Newt Gingrich's mother)--but many critics have said she's done some of her best work out of the spotlight in recent years, including a multiple-award winning report for ABC on the 1966 murder of a black Mississippi man. Her public appeal remains high.

The new show will be broken into three parts, leading with a report and live interview related to the top news story of the day. Chung says she wants to stay away from experts and focus on the principals involved in a story. On a day, say, when sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was the story: "We would aim for a victim or a convicted pedophile priest, not get an expert on pedophilia." A second topic will range from investigative to "gee whiz," she says, followed by a third segment she won't explain in detail, except to say the goal is to "not take ourselves so seriously."

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