Critics See What's Next on Cable

CNN's Isaacson grilled on departures; USA unveils plans to scale back films

CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson, himself a journalist, faced a hostile press last week at the Television Critics Association tour in Los Angeles as he downplayed the recent departures of a number of veteran correspondents and emphasized that the network is not in the midst of any mass exodus.

Isaacson said CNN, in fact, had just a 1% turnover within its correspondent ranks last year, far lower than in other recent years.

"It's not a zero-sum game. Some people stay, some people go," he said, adding that he has been "somewhat baffled" by the number of stories surrounding the departure of reporters like Washington correspondent Brooks Jackson, business news reporter Allan Dodds Frank and Miami-based Mark Potter.

'Natural Ebb and flow'

He noted that CNN just brought on contributor Mike Brooks as an investigative reporter and, in the past year, has added several broadcast veterans, including Suzanne Malvoux from NBC News.

The departures are part of a "natural ebb and flow. You can't say this is an organization moving away from hiring smart journalists," added CNN General Manager Teya Ryan.

Isaacson's defensive appearance was just part of the week's events, which included presentations by a variety of large and small networks bringing executives and stars of upcoming projects to pitch winter wares.

Sometimes even paid talent isn't as supportive as their networks hope. Actress Sean Young, a star in Hallmark Channel's upcoming original movie, King & Queen of Moonlight Bay, was surprised to learn Monday that the movie was airing on Hallmark. "They have, like, the Hallmark cable network now?" she asked TV critics. "My manager said Hallmark, and that was good enough for me. I don't have TV or cable."

Issacson was a bit more on message. The outcome of CNN's mating dance with ABC News remains uncertain, but he favors the idea, which could "protect good journalism for the next 20 or 30 years." He would prefer any union to result in the spinning off of an independent news organization "that had its own editorial integrity" and would be in "some way separate from any of the corporations."

Of course, a potential downside of a star-studded CNN/ABC News organization, Isaacson added, could be deciding which correspondents, from CNN's Larry King to ABC's Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, get which plum stories. The future of another big CNN talent—Los Angeles-based Willow Bay, who is married to ABC chief Robert Iger—is still being discussed, Ryan said.

Meanwhile, CNN executives said they are continuing to prepare for a possible war in Iraq, with more than 100 staffers currently in the region. Isaacson and CNN newsgathering chief Eason Jordan recently met with U.S. military officials in the region to discuss ways to embed journalists among the troops. And CNN has stepped up training for its staffers, including preparing them for war zones and chemical and biological warfare. According to Jordan, CNN also is investing in new technologies and equipment, including upgraded videophones.

Good journalism

CNN executives didn't have much to say about rival Fox News Channel, which beat out CNN in prime time ratings for all of 2002. But Isaacson did take the opportunity to reiterate his desire that CNN stick to good journalism and leave the "shouting and opinion" to others.

On the entertainment front, USA Network, which pushed original dramas like The Dead Zone
and Monk, has opted to scale back on original movies, preferring to produce fewer but higher-profile projects. Its next made-for-TV movie Rudy: The Rudolph Giuliani Story
falls into that category, with actor James Woods playing the former New York City mayor. The biopic darts between Giuliani's political rise and his role leading New York City through the events of Sept. 11. Rather than taking a stand on Giuliani's politics, the movie, which debuts March 20, focuses on what Woods called Giuliani's "perfect three-act life." The first and second acts, the actor said, are his rise to power and his troubles. Then, on 9/11, "[Giuliani] was given an opportunity in the third act to emerge as a great, heroic man."

TechTV also made its press tour debut, displaying its new lifestyle and entertainment focus, which COO Joe Gillespie says is inspired partly by Scripps's approach to its networks: "Food Network and HGTV are not just about lifestyle. They serve as a launch pad to define a brand. They have taken food and gardening to a new level."

Tech-related focus

TechTV ditched most of its news programming in the last year in favor of technology-related shows, with a heavy emphasis sometimes on the "related" part of the phrase. Its latest offerings are Wired for Sex, a look at the tech behind sex, pornography and fertility, and Spy School, investigating the top secrets of espionage. Both series will bow in the second quarter.

The network recently welcomed animated series Animé Unleashed
to its schedule as a weekday strip and Friday- night movie franchise. The series displays the latest in Japanese animation.