The new news battle

CNN's Chung vs. Fox's O'Reilly and, soon, MSNBC's Donahue

At a breakfast meeting last week where she was wooing a prospective plum interview subject, Connie Chung eagerly brandished her new CNN arsenal. She could offer a live interview or live-to-tape. And the subject had five nights a week to choose from.

"I used to have a problem at 20/20," Chung said last week, referring to the ABC News show where she spent part of her career. "If a person had a preference for live, I couldn't offer them that. It was only tape and certain nights."

Chung, who makes her CNN debut tonight, is already proffering the advantages of 24/7 cable news. A broadcast journeywoman whose résumé also includes stints at CBS and NBC, she joined CNN six months ago, and her Connie Chung Tonight
is housed in CNN's sparkling new midtown Manhattan studios (Paula Zahn's morning show moves in soon).

Her latest big "get" was Gary Condit last summer, but Chung is confident she can snare blockbuster interviews for CNN. So confident, in fact, she sang an entire song about the "get," set to "Get Me to the Church on Time," at her June 17 launch party in Manhattan. (Fox News' chief Roger Ailes and star Bill O'Reilly and CBS News chief Andrew Heyward were among partygoers.)

CNN already has one marquee interviewer in Larry King at 9 p.m. ET, but Chung, airing an hour earlier, doesn't seem concerned about competition or infighting. "He mostly interviews names," she said. "Our program is leaning more toward ordinary people."

Adds CNN/US Executive VP Teya Ryan: "We should only have such problems. It didn't hurt ABC, and it won't hurt us."

Chung's entrance is helping heat up the cable news scene yet again. She already battles Fox's O'Reilly, who hosts cable news' highest-rated show, in the 8 p.m. hour. And MSNBC's new star, talk-show vet Phil Donahue, joins the mix July 15.

Donahue was supposed to bow in June, but MSNBC execs decided to hold off a few weeks to let Connie Chung make her initial splash.

Her Connie Chung Tonight
aims to be an interview-based show, working off a major headline and some smaller back-burner stories. Chung shuns the notion that she needs a political bent or a talk-radio format to draw viewers.

"We're not on the right, we're not on the left. We're on the story," she says. Guests will be people involved in the story, she says, rather than pundits. And, save for taped packages from correspondents, Chung promises to almost always be live.

As for the critics who say she can't handle the rigors of live, nightly TV?

"I don't understand where that comes from. I did the CBS Evening News
live five nights a week," she said. "I was live on NBC News at Sunrise, and I did local news in L.A. for seven years."

Chung is latest CNN's latest big gun in its ratings war with Fox News. She joins a stable of highly promoted talent including Paula Zahn, Aaron Brown, Lou Dobbs and Larry King—a CNN strategy that appears to have become more talent-driven since the cable pioneer began getting bested by Fox News Channel.

"News was the star for a long time. Now stars make the news, they get press, they get the perks," said one CNN insider.

Despite all that firepower, CNN still faces an uphill battle. Since January, Fox News has ruled the ratings. MSNBC is revamping and claims it will push CNN aside to grab second place.

CNN execs are satisfied with their network's style. "We're not all opinion or people screaming," said Ryan. "With CNN, you'll actually get the news, some real analysis and personality, and good writing."

Fox News officials (no surprise) prickle at her assertion. "It's a blend of news and opinion. We think it's pithy commentary," said Fox VP of Newsgathering John Stack.

Don't expect any major Fox changes. Its prime time lineup—with O'Reilly, Hannity & Colmes
and former CNN host Greta Van Susteren—is cemented, and each show contributes in ratings.

Now MSNBC and CNN are testing the Fox formula, says Horizon Media research chief Brad Adgate. "Fox found [that] a personality-driven show can drive ratings when there isn't major news. With personalities like Connie Chung or Phil Donahue, you may get appointment viewing."

Donahue's July 15 debut is the crown jewel of MSNBC's makeover. Like Chung, he'll interview newsmakers and work off the day's headlines. He is eager to spur debate, much as he did in his syndication days. "I want to ensure robust debates and lots of views," he said. "Let's not stifle dissent."

Arguably the biggest name on the MSNBC roster, Donahue has been pegged as the frontman for the new, "fiercely independent" strategy. He shies away from a leadership role, pointing to the network's overhauled schedule. "Say what you want about MSNBC, but they don't tinker; they really go for it."

New faces (as of July 15) include conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and liberal analyst Bill Press (both CNN Crossfire
alums), who will face off in an afternoon show, and editor-in-chief Jerry Nachman hosting a news analysis show at 7 p.m. Hardball With Chris Matthews, no longer being shared with CNBC, will follow Donahue at 9 p.m. ET. New York talk-radio hosts Curtis Sliwa and Ron Kuby kicked off an afternoon show June 17.

Ashleigh Banfield is still there at 10 p.m., although former presidential hopeful Alan Keyes' prime time show didn't make the cut.

"We're in a David-and-Goliath situation," MSNBC President Erik Sorenson says. After popping a 1.1 prime time rating last September and October in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, his network has slumped to a 0.4 average much of this year. "We don't expect to explode in the ratings right away," Sorenson added, "but we'll have steady, deliberate growth."

MSNBC is backing its changes with a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign. Donahue alone is said to be getting $1 million in promotion.

The reaction from the competition is lukewarm, at best. Fox News representatives have dismissed MSNBC's changes, calling the net "irrelevant." And CNN's Ryan almost welcomes the overhaul. "It makes our moves easier. Now there really is only one news network."