No News Is the Good News

New head of CNN's news operation aims for stability

The headline for CNN in 2004, according to the network's new top U.S. news executive, is that there are no major changes in the works. "2004 will be a year of stability," predicted Princell Hair, executive vice president and general manager, who joined CNN four months ago from Viacom, where he had been VP of news for its station group, which comprised CBS and UPN stations.

Consistency would indeed be a new story for CNN. The second-rated cable news channel has endured more than its share of management and programming changes in recent years.

But, said Hair, appearing before TV critics in Los Angeles at his first press tour as a CNN executive, "The changes that have occurred over the course of last year have really prepared us well for the future."

And there are some plusses. He is pleased with CNN's prime time lineup and morning show American Morning. Of course, CNN still has a long way to go to come close to catching leader Fox News Channel. He ducked a direct assault on Fox (which he referred to as "the F-word") but conceded that CNN needs to find ways to get its viewers to watch longer. That is an area where Fox, now routinely a top-10-rated cable net, has had success in prime, thanks in part to its talk-radio style and personality-driven programs.

To get viewers to stick around, Hair says, CNN needs to continue to better execute the "fundamentals"—storytelling, writing and journalism—on a consistent basis. He also wants to improve its on-air presentation and showcase CNN journalism better, although he would not elaborate on what that entails.

When CNN President Jim Walton tapped Hair to succeed former General Manager Teya Ryan last fall, the selection raised a few eyebrows in the news business (one TV critic even characterized the reaction as "widespread horror" among critics). That's because the well-traveled Hair, 36, is a local-news vet who had never worked for a national news operation. But Hair shrugs off the skepticism, saying local news was great training for CNN. On CNN as in local news, he says, "you are trying to program to different time periods and different audiences throughout the course of the day."

CNN Inside Politics anchor Judy Woodruff gave Hair a vote of confidence, observing that, because of his local-news training, he "knows what it is like to put a story on the air, to have to pull together all the ingredients." She said he understands better than a news executive who has "been sitting in an executive suite all of his career."

Still, Hair is a bit awed by the global CNN operation. "To see the complexities of how the news gets on the air is awesome."