All's Fair In Cable News Fight

Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes struck back at archrivals at the Cable News Network yesterday, hiring away CNN anchor and longtime legal commentator Greta Van Susteren.

That move comes four months after CNN hired one of FNC's star anchors, Paula Zahn to the Atlanta-based network. When Ailes got wind of the potential defection last September, he fired Zahn for holding premature talks with the rival network (her contract was up in March), sued her agent and scoffed at the $2 million salary CNN was reportedly offering, declaring that a "dead raccoon" could get better ratings than Zahn. Unfazed, Zahn signed on with CNN. Since then, she has become a powerhouse for the news channel, doing nearly round-the-clock coverage during the tumultuous days that followed 9-11 and anchoring the morning show.

Sources at Fox said Van Susteren will be making "slightly less than $1 million a year" to fill the 10 p.m. time slot vacated by Zahn. Although Ailes refused to comment on her salary, he said that Van Susteren had turned down a more lucrative counteroffer by CNN in order to work at Fox. "She said we look like we're having more fun here," said Ailes. "And we are." Van Susteren refused to comment on the details of her negotiation, saying only, "Its exciting to be taking on this new challenge."

Ailes said he didn't yet know what format Van Susteren's new show would take but he hoped Susteren could retain some of the 2.1 million viewers who tune into Fox's top-rated Bill O'Reilly show, "The O'Reilly Factor." "There aren't a lot of topics she can't handle," said Ailes. "She's smart, she's got a good sense of humor and she plays to win."

Van Susteren has worked at CNN for 10 years, first as a legal commentator during the William Kennedy Smith trial and latter as a legal analyst during the O. J. Simpson trial. Since then, she has held a variety of jobs, including talk-show host and anchor. Her most recent assignment, as anchor of "The Point," was CNN's second-highest-rated show in prime time, after "Larry King Live." Van Susteren said she was looking forward to working at Fox. And with Bill O'Reilly? "You can't argue with his success. He's leading the pack. I'm going to study him."

As competition between CNN and the five-year-old FNC has reached a boiling point, CNN has been scrambling to shore up its ratings. The news channel has updated its graphics, revamped its show lineup and adopted FNC's successful marketing strategy of emphasizing news personalities over the news. With both cable networks now spending millions to promote their anchor lineup, losing a well-known anchor to a rival network is a body blow.

Yesterday, Ailes signaled that as far as FNC was concerned, the raids were far from over. With Van Susteren's departure, CNN announced that congressional correspondent Kate Snow would replace her at least temporarily on "The Point." "That's a good choice," said Ailes of Snow. "She's good. I'd be interested in talking to her."