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COMPANY TOWN : Dobbs' exit a double-edged sword : His on-air opinions irked his bosses at CNN, but he was a strong performer.

November 13, 2009|Joe Flint and Matea Gold

LOS ANGELES AND NEW YORK — Lou Dobbs' departure from CNN is a mixed blessing for the cable news channel.

On one hand, his propensity to spout his opinions on controversial topics such as free trade and immigration had irritated bosses at CNN and its parent company, Time Warner Inc. Although rival channels MSNBC and Fox News have commentators who wear their political views on their sleeves, CNN says it wants its talent to keep their thoughts to themselves.

On the other hand, Dobbs is one of CNN's few solid performers, and his Wednesday departure leaves big shoes to fill. His audience soared 59% over the four years through 2008, when viewership for his and most news programs spiked because of the election. This year, however, his audience has dropped 25%. Many other newscasts also have lost viewers.

Dobbs is still keeping mum on his plans and, through a spokesperson, declined to comment. His statement on his last "Lou Dobbs Tonight" show was vague enough to cover a career in politics or a move to a rival channel.

"Some leaders in media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN and to engage in constructive problem solving as well as to contribute positively to a better understanding of the great issues of our day," Dobbs said.

There continues to be speculation that Dobbs could end up at Fox News or Fox Business. A Fox News spokeswoman reiterated her statement from Wednesday that there had been no talks with Dobbs about jobs at either channel.

CNN let Dobbs out of his contract early, and there is nothing stopping him from working at a rival network, according to two people familiar with Dobbs' departure terms.

Although his viewing audience had grown, his show was still in third place behind Fox News and MSNBC and fourth in the key news demographic of adults ages 25 to 54.

The fact that CNN itself is in the midst of a very disappointing year hasn't helped. Its prime-time audience dropped 25% this year. Its news show with Campbell Brown has failed to generate a big audience. Larry King is in the twilight of his career. And Anderson Cooper's transition into a well-known personality hasn't translated into huge ratings.

But CNN U.S. President Jon Klein isn't worried.

"We've had five straight years of double-digit profit growth," Klein said. "Our business is phenomenally popular and profitable. That all suggests we are pursuing the correct course."

He would not provide specific data because Time Warner doesn't break out the news network's financial performance.

CNN will replace Dobbs' show in January with a program hosted by John King, the anchor of Sunday morning's "State of the Union." Until King takes over, CNN will run an hourlong newscast called "CNN Tonight" at 7 p.m. EST.

"The holidays are coming upon us; there is no rush to throw something up on the screen," Klein said. "January feels right."

King, CNN's chief national correspondent, acknowledged that he faced "a huge challenge" but said he's not going fret about the ratings.

"That's not my job," he said. "My job is to put an interesting, informative and hopefully thought-provoking and fun program on the air. And if people like it, they will come. . . . If it's not working, they'll come tap me on the shoulder some day and say, 'You know what, this isn't working.' "

A veteran political reporter, King has covered six presidential elections, many for the Associated Press, where he worked as chief political correspondent before joining CNN in 1997.

His new program will have the sharp political focus he brings to his four-hour "State of the Union," which he plans to continue hosting next year for an unspecified period.

"You look around at so many big issues that are front and center right now; if we can't find a way to make them interesting for people, then . . . I should go back to tending bar or moving pianos or something," said King, who did both to help put himself through the University of Rhode Island.

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joe.flint@latimes.com

matea.gold@latimes.com

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