Don't ask new CNN chief Jim Walton for his strategy for taking on ratings leader Fox News Channel. He simply won't answer. "There is certainly a lot of noise about a competitor," said the 20-year CNN vet. "But I don't get caught up in that."
Instead, at the Television Critics Association press tour in Los Angeles last week, Walton tried to focus attention on his network's journalism chops and its new shows and stars. CNN's quality journalism, he contends, is what consumers and advertisers really value.
He likes to compare CNN to a Rolex watch. "Rolex means something to people; It's a quality product, it's expensive."
But still, Fox News Channel has been trouncing CNN in ratings. CNN's post-war ratings have dropped back to more normal levels: around 0.8 in prime, according to Nielsen. Meanwhile, Fox has managed to hold on to more viewers, garnering a 1.4 rating now in a typical week.
Careful to say he wasn't taking a shot at any competitor, Walton said that, if he cared most about ratings, CNN would change its style. "We might have more tabloid-y, more sensational and more talk in what we do." But, he stressed, that's not CNN.
Walton has jettisoned most of that programming. He canned Connie Chung's tabloid-style show and afternoon chatfest TalkBack Live. Political-debate show Crossfire
lost its plum early-evening slot, moving to the afternoon.
Now CNN is busy polishing its new prime time lineup. Paula Zahn is back from a six-week hiatus and hosting the 8 p.m. hour. She called it a "mirror on the world" and said the newscast "is really the kind of show I've always wanted to do."
Anchoring at 7 p.m. now is boyish Anderson Cooper, who earned praise for his overnight work during the war. CNN's morning looks a little different now, too. Former Weekend Today
anchor Soledad O'Brien joined co-host Bill Hemmer on American Morning
One thing that's not changing is the CNN ticker. Although Walton wanted to eliminate it, research says viewers like it. "I hate it," he said, "but we don't program for ourselves."