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Connie Chung to Leave CNN

March 26, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Celebrity anchor Connie Chung, facing the cancellation of her nightly interview show, is leaving AOL Time Warner's CNN rather than accept another assignment, the network said late Tuesday.

The hourlong "Connie Chung Tonight" program, which launched only last summer, fell victim to the changing programming mandate at CNN, which has seen its dominance eclipsed by Fox News Channel.

Most recently, the network has said it plans to differentiate itself from the competition by stressing hard news.

When Chung was hired away from Walt Disney Co.'s ABC News a year ago, at a salary estimated at $2 million annually, her addition to the roster was widely heralded as part of the network's new star-driven look that would help it compete with Fox, a unit of News Corp. But "Connie Chung Tonight" was panned by critics and other CNN employees for focusing too much on personality and "tabloid" subjects; CNN founder Ted Turner recently called it "just awful" in an interview. He later said he regretted the remarks.

Although Chung has a strong audience following, thanks to her long career at NBC, CBS and ABC, the program didn't make the hoped-for dent in its competition, Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," cable news' top-rated show.

Chung's program had been showing recent ratings strength, however, and was the network's third-highest-rated show in February, behind "Larry King Live" and "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." Overall ratings have been up sharply in the last week for Fox News, CNN and MSNBC because of heightened interest in news about the war in Iraq.

The network declined to discuss why the show was canceled, but CNN already had been moving toward more serious news before the Iraq war began, after a recent round of management changes. Jamie Kellner, who oversaw CNN as head of Turner Broadcasting, has returned to the WB Television Network, and the chairman of CNN, Walter Isaacson, left to run the Aspen Institute.

New CNN President Jim Walton made clear in just a couple of months on the job that he believed CNN needed to return to a more hard-news format. In one of the first moves under his leadership, CNN canceled its afternoon "TalkBack Live," a show with a studio audience and panels of shouting talk radio hosts as frequent guests. Graphics also have been toned down.

Chung has anchored some of the network's war coverage, but her program hasn't aired in recent days, and CNN told her this week it wouldn't be returning. Options she was offered did not include a daily show, as her contract specified, according to a network insider.

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