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The new shape of CNN's world

Walter Isaacson is changing the way the news channel does business; it's no easy task 2/17/2002 07:00:00 PM Eastern

A return to his roots

A return to his roots

If war turns boys into men, then war has made Walter Isaacson a TV man.

Isaacson, who had been editorial director Time Inc., took the reins as chairman and CEO of CNN News Group last July and inherited a CNN in flux. Fox News was gaining momentum while CNN looked rudderless, with flat ratings and stale programming.

Early on, Isaacson thought his biggest challenge would be combating a slow news cycle. "It's easy to run a magazine or a news network when 200,000 troops are being landed on a beach somewhere," he said in July at his first press conference.

After Sept. 11, though, CNN was back to its bread-and-butter business as breaking news erupted. Instead of focusing on "fascinating and fun" programming as he had planned, Isaacson was drawing on his journalism roots, leading coverage of a war on terrorism.

His boss, Turner Broadcasting chief Jamie Kellner, says he and Isaacson complement each other well. "He's a journalist, I'm a television guy," Kellner said last summer. "I feel comfortable that the tradition of CNN is being protected."

Isaacson began his career in newspaper, first with The Sunday Times of London and later for his hometown paper, the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Moving to Time in 1978, he worked his way up from national-affairs reporter to assistant managing editor. A two-year stint as head of Time Inc.'s new-media division may be the only blip on his résumé: Isaacson led the development of the failed Pathfinder portal.

He returned to Time as managing editor from 1996 to 2000, and colleagues credit him with reinvigorating the magazine at a time it was losing ground to Newsweek.

"CNN is the same basic job he did at Time: gauging the market and the times and devising the right product," said former NCTA Vice President of Communications David Beckwith, who worked with Isaacson at Time.

Isaacson has a scholarly streak. A Harvard College graduate and Oxford University Rhodes Scholar, he penned a biography of Henry Kissinger ("utterly fascinating," gushed the Kirkus Review) in 1993. He also co-authored a book on diplomats of the Cold War era.

Isaacson splits his time between New York's suburban Westchester County, where his wife and 12-year-old daughter still live, and CNN headquarters in Atlanta.—A.R.

Fox News Channel and CNN may be at war, but CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson is writing a different story. Isaacson, who took over at CNN last summer, won't pit his network directly against its rival, even as Fox News conquers CNN in the ratings. He says he wants to focus on rebuilding his own channel. Period.

As chief engineer of the new CNN, where news shares center stage with star anchors, Isaacson has recruited broadcast vets Paula Zahn and Connie Chung. He guided former ABC correspondent Aaron Brown into a new prime time newscast. And he got aging talk star Larry King to sign an eye-popping $30 million contract.

Sept. 11 propelled CNN to the top of cable Nielsen ratings in September and October, but, as the war news simmers, CNN's ratings are cooling off. Isaacson has spent millions of dollars on new talent, but Fox News has claimed better prime time ratings over the past three months.

Isaacson insists that he's building smart shows around his talent, shows that look more like broadcast-network fare. He says it will take at least a year to see results. But there's no telling if his is the right formula for taming Fox News.

The AOL Time Warner brass in July tapped the Rhodes scholar to reinvigorate the stale channel. Television is new turf for Isaacson, who started his career as a newspaper journalist. When CNN came calling, he was Time Inc.'s editorial director and also has served as managing editor for Time
magazine.

The New Orleans native has relocated to CNN's hometown Atlanta from New York, where he was once a fixture on city's media social scene. Still, he spends a considerable amount of time in New York. On a recent trip back, he sat down with BROADCASTING & CABLE's Allison Romano and John Higgins to discuss the state of cable news and the future of CNN. An edited transcript follows.

How do you feel about the constant comparisons between CNN and Fox?

Fox does a different formula than what we are trying to do. When you hire a Connie Chung, the goal isn't to go after the same viewer who might be watching a Bill O'Reilly or a Chris Matthews. The goal is to bring in a different type of viewer.

I don't see it as a head-on situation with MSNBC, Fox or CNBC. I see it as a competition to bring more viewers into the news space. Connie Chung and Aaron Brown are a different way of doing it than Geraldo, Chris Matthews or Bill O'Reilly.

If Fox News has shown that viewers like talk-radio-style programming, why not give them what they want?

Fox News has shown there is an audience for that. Our approach is somewhat different. ... CNN is always going to have a mix, from Crossfire
to Larry King to Aaron Brown to Paula Zahn. Our emphasis will be much more on journalism, what's timely and good reporting, than other nets' would be.

Will these shows boost you past Fox?

I would love to build programs that get us good ratings when there's a lull in the news, just as we get good ratings when there's a spike in the news.

You can create networks based on ideological talk. You can base it on people parachuting into various places around the world, or you can base it on a long-term commitment to covering the world. We've done the latter. We offer credibility to viewers and advertisers, and that will build a great loyalty.

A lot of the broadcast networks have done a lot of great coverage. They've cut back, and that's a shame. But it offers us an opportunity to fill that role more. We'll end up drawing more viewers from broadcast than from cable news outlets.

If Fox News' viewers are not your audience, who is?

People who want that type of high-class, smart, journalistically valid news programming that you used to see more of on the broadcast networks.

The mantra at CNN used to be that the news is the star, not the journalists. But I think you can have it both ways.

You don't mind limited ideological sparring? Say, a show like Crossfire?

I think everything is a mix. When you say you want to do more international news, it doesn't mean you want to do all international news.

The war's storylines are fading. You've been in crisis mode for a few months. What now?

Clearly, CNN's strength is big news, so the ratings will rise and fall depending on events. We're just trying to find ways to bring in viewers when there isn't much news.

9/11 made us all a little less frivolous. It was a summer of sharks and Gary Condit, and there's less of it now.

And probably, at least on CNN, there will be less of that for the foreseeable future. Sept. 11 taught us all that the world really matters. We want to be the one network that's committed to bringing people what's important around the world.

We have a chance to build our new programs for the future, to focus on the journalism, the nuts and bolts of making them tighter, smarter, and more compelling.

How much has it cost to cover 9/11 and Afghanistan?

In terms of expenses, I don't know. We were told to spend whatever it takes.

I suppose it has been tough to cover much else. Have stories been neglected?

Enron has been a tough story to cover on television, and we've worked very hard to do it right. We had Lou Dobbs down in Houston showing it as a biz story, rather than an ideological story. It's not a natural television story with great visuals, and it's not going to cause a huge spike in ratings.

We've done more on the economy than other networks. Enron is a window to get at some of the problems we had in the go-go years of the '90s and why the economy is so shaky right now.

A lot of people think television news is interested in international news now but that will fade away.

International news will not always have big ratings spikes, but it's a core of CNN's mission.

Turner Broadcasting chief Jamie Kellner says TV news is still showbiz. Does that clash with your views?

I came in here as a journalist. It's great to learn aspects of the TV trade from Jamie, but my push is on the journalistic side.

What are Jamie Kellner and programming head Garth Ancier most involved in?

We don't talk about the journalism that much. They've been involved in the look, feel, design and promotion of the network.

Do the promotions and showbiz elements undermine the journalism at CNN?

We made a mistake with the promotions at times, like the Paula Zahn promotion. When I was at Time, I didn't think good promotion was bad for good journalism, and I don't feel that way at CNN.

You are a TV programmer now, though. Has that forced you to back off the journalism?

We've picked smart people with very strong journalism credentials. We haven't gone the non-journalistic route in programming. That may help us or hurt us in the ratings.

What have you learned about the TV biz that you didn't expect?

Certainly, in print, managing the talent is a lot easier than it is in TV. There's a high visibility with TV. Everybody is trying to second-guess or figure the motives behind any move you make, instead of just saying they hired Connie Chung because she's a good journalist and would produce good TV.

Personally, how have the past six months been for you?

It's been an exciting thrill ride. I look forward to the time when I can focus a lot more on the journalism and a lot less on the mechanics of putting together programming.

You're here because the ratings were adrift, right?

No, I'm here because they decided to bring a journalist in. If your only goal is to bring in good ratings, you wouldn't focus as much on the good journalism.

There's no resistance from corporate to the journalistic approach?

CNN is very profitable and very healthy. It gets good ad revenue because it's recognized as a quality product. It's important to keep it as a quality product.

What's the strategy behind hiring younger, MTV-style reporters like Serena Altschul, Anderson Cooper and Jason Bellini?

It's not about creating a block of news for younger viewers. This is about infusing the entire network and its schedule with a new sensibility, new type of reporting, and, over the next few years, to bring in a younger generation of viewers. They are basically storytellers in a more informal way, and that style appealed to me.

Do you think the relaunch of Headline News has been a success?

I think Headline News looks good. It's defining the future of news. Everyone criticized us for being too busy, but most news nets have copied Headline in having more information on the screen.

About a year ago, there were a lot of layoffs. The number given was 25%, although CNN now says 10%. Is that the end?

Since I've come, we've been building—on-air talent and work we do overseas. I hope, at the end, we'll have a stronger CNN.

There's chronic anxiety among the staff in Atlanta that the center will shift to New York. Is that warranted?

Atlanta remains headquarters for all 14 CNN networks. It is a great place to have the heart and soul of our newsgathering operations.

It makes sense, though, to have some programs come out of Washington, L.A. and New York, where you'll get prominent news stars to do shows.

Are the plans to relaunch CNN Money off or on hold?

Right now, the media marketplace does not seem to be craving launches of new networks, but I assume that will change at some point. In the middle of the year, we're going to focus on that again.

How long is crawl going to last? Is it a permanent TV fixture?

We're looking at different new designs over the next month or two, some of which may reduce the role of the crawl. It will always have some role to play. But, in times there's not much news, maybe its role is less.

What's the big thing you've learned about the mechanics of TV?

One thing that I've really loved is how flexible television can be. We've been putting on a show every night called Live From. We come up with ideas like let's do it from a fox hole in Afghanistan, let's do it from Guantánamo Bay, let's do it from Somalia or under the volcano.

I'm pleased with how quick and mobile our people can be.

As you surprised by the competitiveness of cable TV? The emphasis on scoops and ratings?

I like the competitiveness on substantive journalism, who got the story best, who got it first, who made it the most interesting. I don't think competition is just a matter of if Connie Chung can steal a viewer from a Chris Matthews or a Bill O'Reilly.

You were near the top of the magazine world. Don't you miss it?

I've been impressed by how much fun it is to pull together the various elements of a package in television. Whereas, in print, it's much easier, just usually words and still photographs, TV gives you a broader range of tools by which to communicate.

A return to his roots

A return to his roots

If war turns boys into men, then war has made Walter Isaacson a TV man.

Isaacson, who had been editorial director Time Inc., took the reins as chairman and CEO of CNN News Group last July and inherited a CNN in flux. Fox News was gaining momentum while CNN looked rudderless, with flat ratings and stale programming.

Early on, Isaacson thought his biggest challenge would be combating a slow news cycle. "It's easy to run a magazine or a news network when 200,000 troops are being landed on a beach somewhere," he said in July at his first press conference.

After Sept. 11, though, CNN was back to its bread-and-butter business as breaking news erupted. Instead of focusing on "fascinating and fun" programming as he had planned, Isaacson was drawing on his journalism roots, leading coverage of a war on terrorism.

His boss, Turner Broadcasting chief Jamie Kellner, says he and Isaacson complement each other well. "He's a journalist, I'm a television guy," Kellner said last summer. "I feel comfortable that the tradition of CNN is being protected."

Isaacson began his career in newspaper, first with The Sunday Times of London and later for his hometown paper, the New Orleans Times Picayune.

Moving to Time in 1978, he worked his way up from national-affairs reporter to assistant managing editor. A two-year stint as head of Time Inc.'s new-media division may be the only blip on his résumé: Isaacson led the development of the failed Pathfinder portal.

He returned to Time as managing editor from 1996 to 2000, and colleagues credit him with reinvigorating the magazine at a time it was losing ground to Newsweek.

"CNN is the same basic job he did at Time: gauging the market and the times and devising the right product," said former NCTA Vice President of Communications David Beckwith, who worked with Isaacson at Time.

Isaacson has a scholarly streak. A Harvard College graduate and Oxford University Rhodes Scholar, he penned a biography of Henry Kissinger ("utterly fascinating," gushed the Kirkus Review) in 1993. He also co-authored a book on diplomats of the Cold War era.

Isaacson splits his time between New York's suburban Westchester County, where his wife and 12-year-old daughter still live, and CNN headquarters in Atlanta.—A.R.

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