CNN Fights Tabloid Era

CNN president Jonathan Klein slipped quietly into his Atlanta newsroom last Monday afternoon. With the network poised to broadcast the Michael Jackson jury's verdict all over the world, he thought it best to be seen among the troops. But after a few moments absorbing images of white doves and black armbands, a worried Klein had seen enough. Stepping away from the satellite feeds, he called CNN's real power center: the prime-time producers back in Manhattan. He was concerned that their evening coverage of the not-guilty verdict was destined to be stale. "We have a less interesting story now," Klein told his deputies. "What is there original to say about Michael Jackson at this point?"

It was a good question, but an odd one for Klein to ask. For months, after all, Jackson was CNN's biggest prime-time star, the pop star's black umbrella as ubiquitous on the network as Larry King's broad suspenders or Anderson Cooper's pin-striped suits. Nevertheless, talking to NEWSWEEK a few days after the verdict, Klein said he regretted the "endless parade" of stories CNN aired with "Michael dressed like Captain Crunch, walking out of the limousine." He marveled at opportunities lost: "We could have done 60 stories during that time."

Now Klein says he's taking steps so that CNN doesn't have to go wacko for Jacko, or someone like him, again. Seven months into his tenure, Klein is making revolutionary changes at the cable network--scrapping signature broadcasts like "Crossfire" and "Inside Politics," shaking up his morning-show ensemble and his prime-time producing staff, and creating a new international news show at noon. These are only the first steps in a broad overhaul plan aimed at getting the pioneering and once dominant cable news network out of a seemingly perennial second-place finish, far behind Fox News. His unorthodox, even heretical game plan: serious news that doesn't put viewers to sleep. "There's a palpable thirst out there for the broad scope of stories if they're told in a compelling way," Klein says.

Klein has moved aggressively to make CNN's prime-time producers shift their focus to longer, more-polished pieces, eventually creating a sort of "60 Minutes" every night. It's an art he knows personally: for two decades he worked as producer at CBS and, as the network's executive vice president, he oversaw its prime-time programming. Forever roaming the halls and popping in on --producers, he's transformed CNN culture--news meetings are now singularly focused on finding characters and discussing storytelling technique. In the past, CNN was plagued by a bumbling media image. Klein has imposed strict message discipline and many staffers refused to talk on the record about the network for fear of losing their jobs. Privately, though, many staffers express discontent with the new regime, saying it's not possible to make "60 Minutes"- style pieces on a limited budget and tight time constraints. The ratings have yet to pro-vide consolation: in May CNN averaged only 610,000 viewers in prime time, still well above third-place finisher (and NEWSWEEK strategic partner) MSNBC, but still far below Fox's 1,401,000 viewers. CNN officials say they have numbers to be proud of, pointing to strong improvement in the key 25-to-54 demographic and a powerful performance by the brand name when CNN's numbers are combined with those of its sister network, Headline News. That network has improved dramatically in the ratings thanks almost entirely to its legal-affairs program hosted by Nancy Grace. Last Thursday, Grace drew 804,000 viewers, more than any CNN prime-time program save for "Larry King Live."

But therein lies Klein's dilemma. His vision may win over media critics who've grown weary of the food-fight culture of cable news. But Grace's style is what moves the numbers. (The former prosecutor's overly opinionated approach--"You're telling me what you believe doesn't matter?" she asked the Jackson jury's foreman in a postverdict duel--led Court TV founder Steven Brill to say he would have fired her for such talk. Grace makes no claim to being an objective journalist but insists that "as an officer of the court" she is always careful in interviews "not to misrepresent the facts.")

Klein declined to comment on Grace, saying Headline News does not fall under his jurisdiction. But some at the network wonder if he isn't secretly happy to have her on the air. With Grace safely tucked away at Headline News, they reason, Klein can preach his message of highbrow journalism even as the network continues to rake in tabloid gold. Whatever Klein's ultimate strategy, it seems clear that Grace--who's been discussed as a possible successor to the ratings-rich Larry King--isn't going anywhere any time soon. "The old CNN is [esteemed political anchor] Judy Woodruff," said one veteran producer who declined to speak on the record for fear of upsetting Klein. "The new CNN is Nancy Grace."

CNN News Group president Jim Walton scoffs at the suggestion that Grace dilutes the CNN brand, saying viewers can differentiate between serious programming on one CNN network and lighter fare on another. But questions remain at CNN as to whether Klein's new approach can really work. Clarity could come quickly: staffers expect the network president to announce changes in the network's prime-time programming perhaps as soon as this summer. Before that, though, Klein's challenge will be to prove just how serious he is about being serious. Even if Michael Jackson has agreed to keep the little boys out of his bed, another celebrity show trial is always around the corner. Just ask Nancy Grace.

CNN Fights Tabloid Era | News