Sunday, August 05, 2001

CNN about to change news picture dramatically

        Everything you loved about CNN Headline News is going to be replaced by everything you hate about local news.

        The single-anchor, “get-to-the-point” newscasts vanish Monday in favor of chatty co-anchors, in the first major overhaul of the service started in 1982.

        Miles O'Brien and former NYPD Blue actress Andrea Thompson will co-anchor the prime-time show with five correspondents around a new circular anchor desk. (“News in the round,” they call it.)

        The fast-paced, voice-over-video sports update will be replaced by a sports anchor Larry Smith delivering the latest scores.

[photo] On CNN's new Headline News will be (from left) Kris Osborn, Alisha Davis, Andrea Thompson, Miles O'Brien, Sachi Koto and Larry Smith.
(CNN photo)
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        On-screen graphics will consume about 40 percent of the TV screen.

        As the CNN promotional campaign says: “We're changing everything.”

        That's too bad.

        Squeezed into the 15-minute news cycle will be reports from in-studio correspondents for culture and entertainment (Alisha Davis), technology (Kris Osborn), financial news (Patricia Sabga) and breaking news (Sachi Koto).

        “Our new studio is designed to showcase the reporting strength of our anchors,” says Teya Ryan, CNN Headline News executive vice president and general manager.

        Exactly how much reporting anyone can do at the anchor desk — instead of being out in the field, or in a CNN newsroom surrounded by phones, faxes and files — is hard to fathom.

        And what kind of “reporting strength” will we see from Ms. Thompson, who has just one year of TV news experience in Albuquerque?

        “Certainly I am not a seasoned journalist,” admits Ms. Thompson, the Dayton, Ohio, native who played Genele Ericson on Falcon Crest (1989-90) and Commander Allison Krennick on JAG (1995-96) before joining NYPD Blue (1997-2000).

        “I am, as Teya has so often put it, a promising journalist,” she says.

        Frankly, there's not much promise in the revamped CNN Headline preview shown to TV critics at the summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif., last month.

        The only welcomed innovation is that CNN Headline anchors will be live in the studio most hours of the day, instead of videotaped in advance and fed to homes with prepackaged news stories selected by a computer.

        Starting Monday, two-fifths of the screen will be cluttered with headlines, weather reports, stock market updates and sports scores. How will this look on a 13-inch screen?

        On the only channel where news is truly the star, the spotlight will shift to the news presenters. Just what we need: More news teases, more “tosses” back to the anchor desk.

        “I think television is ... a personality medium, and introducing exciting personalities is another way to attract an audience,” says Jamie Kellner, the former WB chief executive named Turner Broadcasting chairman and CEO in March.

Responding "emotionally'


        Co-anchors will be encouraged to react to stories, as they do on local news. They will “respond emotionally to what we all just heard, just as the viewers would, and then ... tell the next story,” says Mr. Kellner, who launched Fox Broadcasting in 1986.

        Like local news stations, CNN Headline has tested the new format with focus groups. “Response has been phenomenal,” he says.

        Why borrow so heavily from local news?

        “What's wrong with local news? I mean, that's where the ratings are,” he says.

        All of the changes are aimed at drawing younger viewers to CNN Headline News. It's ranked 43rd of 43 cable channels ranked by Nielsen Media Research, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Headline averages a 0.2 rating in prime-time, about 143,000 viewers.

        The average viewer watches for about 12 minutes, Mr. Kellner says. “If you can get them to 15, or 16, or 17 minutes, you've got an enormous victory,” he says.

        People familiar with cluttered Internet graphics won't be intimidated by the new on-screen design, Mr. Kellner says.

        “Focus testing comes back off the charts ... with the core (audience) that you want for this, which is the 18-49, 25-54 (age group),” he says.

        He admits that the new look won't be for everyone. Older viewers “will have a harder time,” he says.

        Not everyone will like the new format being promoted as “News at the speed of life” and “Real News, Real fast.”

        “It's all about ... the need for younger people to get information in fast doses,” Mr. Kellner says.

        So they're changing everything I liked? Then I'll be changing the channel.
       Contact John Kiesewetter by phone: 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; e-mail:


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