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CNN Tries To Find 'Extra Dimension’

11/11/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

The planning for the second two-hour edition of Anderson Cooper 360 was just beginning. “Obviously, a lot of mixed headlines coming out, mixed information coming out, what [Vice President Dick] Cheney’s doing behind closed doors and what the president said yesterday. So we’re going to sort of continue that discussion on, you know, what’s the bottom line here: Do we torture detainees or don’t we?” boomed the voice of a producer from overhead, as Jon Klein listened in.

The president of Cable News Network/U.S. had announced a week earlier that the service was replacing its four-year-old NewsNight primetime report and its anchor, Aaron Brown. The flashier 360 program was to be the second cornerstone program, after The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer, in the network’s attempt to catch up with archrival Fox News Channel in the time viewers spend with their programs. As recently as August, CNN was watched by an average of 625,000 households during primetime. At Fox News, the figure was 1.6 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Then hurricanes changed the numbers — leading directly to the installation of Cooper as the new flag bearer of the network’s primetime news coverage.

Ratings were not on Klein’s mind at the 9 a.m. teleconference with bureau chiefs and show producers on the morning of Nov. 8. The proper way to inflict pain was.

“You know it would be great to take this torture discussion out of the realm of politics and just understand a little bit better, you know, is it useful? In what circumstances, is it useful?’’ he asks. “You know, there are probably a lot of people wondering, well, wouldn’t the enemy be doing anything they could to us? So why wouldn’t we do anything to them in order to get information that would save lives?’

After all, it was too early to tell whether his bet on Cooper would pay off. Sure, he was willing to cover death, anywhere, from Somalia to Indonesia to Niger to New Orleans. And he was willing to “call out” public officials, like he did, famously, with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) on the government’s inept Hurricane Katrina response efforts. But unknown was whether he would connect over the long haul with peripatetic viewers whose lives now seem to be driven around the clock by the tap-tap of handheld e-mail devices.

The overnight ratings from Nielsen showed that the Nov. 7 debut of Anderson Cooper 360 had retained 58% of the audience of its lead-in program, Larry King Live. A big drop-off — but 5 percentage points better than Brown’s show had done a week earlier. Klein called it “the best debut performance I’ve ever been involved with.’’

But the next day loomed and Klein was looking for the “extra dimension” that would set CNN’s news coverage apart.

Another producer chimed in that the second-highest read story on the network’s Web site (www.cnn.com) had to do with a radio talk-show host being arrested for slowly killing his wife, drip by drip, by spiking her Gatorade with antifreeze. “My wife accuses me of doing the same thing with my BlackBerry,’’ said Klein, tapping away on e-mail on his own handheld device while listening to the voices in the ceiling.

Here’s how Klein plans use to rebuild CNN, once the definer of what it meant to be a 24-hour news channel, for “the age of BlackBerry.’’

MCN: In the last couple years, we’ve seen a progression from text blogging to radio blogging, and you know video blogging is next. Are we going to see citizen journalists on CNN?

Jonathan Klein: Hopefully. Hopefully, we’ll also see video blogs done by CNN journalists.

MCN: You’re in a ratings war. Always will be. How do you make sure you take advantage of that democratization of content in a useful way?

JK: When someone says, well, you’re in a ratings war, the implication almost always is, well, you have to do cheesy, lowbrow stuff in order to get people to watch you.

But the most popular television show in history — not just the most popular news show, the most popular show — is 60 Minutes, which never once pandered in its life, which is dipped in the highest-quality programming, which aimed highest, which did the most foreign news, the longest stories. Now, supposedly, that is a bad model to follow.

MCN: CNN was the news network and now is both news and personality, with anchors like [Lou] Dobbs, [Paula] Zahn and Cooper up against [Shepard] Smith, [Sean] Hannity, [Alan] Colmes and the like. How do you differentiate yourself long-term?

JK: It’s the difference between news radio and talk radio. Fox has a very small news-gathering organization and they basically rely on a few talk-radio or talk-television stars to pull their wagon. We really do rely on a depth of coverage and an ability to be in more places at once with the most insightful reporters of anyone. That’s unique.

The challenge isn’t really so much to overcome Fox, per se. The challenge is to overcome all the choices viewers have when they get home at night and find themselves with 45 minutes or an hour to watch television. They can be downloading iTunes, they can be watching DVDs, they could be watching on-demand cable.

MCN: Anderson Cooper’s biggest competition probably is going to be Jon Stewart, right?

JK: Well, his biggest competition might be Curb Your Enthusiasm on demand. In a day and age when I can watch my favorite shows whenever I want to, the competition is infinite. It isn’t only what happens to be broadcast at that moment, live.

That offers a release, in a way. You can focus just on being as interesting as you possibly can be and not worry so much about what the other guy’s doing a couple channels down. Last night, Christiane Amanpour got away from the humdrum pictures of the burning cars in Paris and actually went to a poor Muslim neighborhood and told us who these people are. She introduced us to the kids who were doing the rioting.

If we can be the network that consistently offers that kind of dimension … rather than bloviating about it, about things we don’t know anything about, we’re going to be in a very good position.

MCN: It was an interesting package 360 had last night. There were some very thoughtful pieces, but there was also Tyra Banks trying to do “Fat Like Me” and another “missing white woman” thing.

JK: Yeah, but that’s OK. The New York Times has a crossword puzzle. Of course, you’re going to pick out the individual stories that might not all hew to the same tone. Hopefully, everything we do has an intelligence and wit to it and is worth your while.

MCN: The change in one show, 360 from NewsNight, was really dramatic. Two totally different animals. It almost makes the other parts of your primetime feel like there’s work to do.

JK: I’m glad you say that. The stories themselves would have all been featured on NewsNight. It’s the way they’re attacked, the energy and imagination that is brought to bear on them, which is reflective of Anderson’s personality — his interests, his style and that of his executive producer, David Doss. So that’s where personalities do influence how you present stories to the public.

MCN: But there is also a much more active set.

JK: That’s him. That’s Anderson himself.

MCN: Are you trying to outfox Fox?

JK: Fox didn’t invent energetic presentation of the news. If anything, The Situation Room, Wolf Blitzer’s new show, has redefined or recalibrated the pace of cable news. And it’s an acknowledgement that the pace of life in general is faster these days. The body clocks of our viewers are just ticking faster.

MCN: When did you decide to make the change to Anderson Cooper?

JK: I’ve been noticing his work all year long. I was just observing that everyone was doing and there was Anderson just itching to get out to the tsunami, to the Iraq elections, to Baghdad, to the Vatican, to London even when Prince Charles got married, to Niger for the famine. He has to be where the story is. That struck me.

Then when he gets there, his work is so substantive. He’s a fantastic writer, he’s a wonderful observer. He watches and observes and then he’s able to synthesize it in a way that is very compelling and moving. He crystallizes the action in a way that makes you stop and think.

It became apparent that Anderson had something very special. And then of course it climaxed with the coverage of Katrina. He’s not an ironed-out anchorman.

MCN: How do you know that he has lasting power? There have been other anchors in similar situations that have come and been hot for a while: the Scud Stud [NBC’s Arthur Kent] in Iraq, Ashleigh Banfield [of MSNBC] in Afghanistan.

JK: The big difference is those were two unknowns who, indeed, their networks decided they were hot. Anderson’s career has been about a slow build. Slow and steady. Started with the day he picked up a video camera and went off to Asia by himself and took himself to Somalia to cover the war there.

That takes real journalistic chops, and he’s been earning his way to this point ever since.

MCN: How long do you give yourself to become the most-watched cable news network on the planet?

JK: This going to be a process. This is not something that is going to be, 'Flip a light switch and CNN is the No. 1 network in all of cable.’ I’ve been in the job almost a year. Only now have we put our flags in the ground and said, 'OK, the place we’re going to build is here. We’re going to build around Anderson Cooper 360 and we’re going to build around The Situation Room.’

You work at making one show the best in its category and you will begin the process of redefining your network, attracting more and better ideas, more commitment from both inside and out. Ratings will inexorably follow.

MCN: How many years?

JK: It’s hard to pick a number out of your hat. We attract more viewers than any other network does. Our cume is higher than any other networks. Our viewers don’t stay as long. We need to get them to stay longer. More substantive programming that’s worth watching longer will get them to stay longer. Better packaging, more energy, delivering a better experience that’s more interesting to watch, will get people to watch longer.

September