CNN taking ayem battle to streets

'Morning' looks to capitalize on ratings hike with venue

This article was corrected on Sept. 18, 2002.

NEW YORK — CNN will unveil its latest arsenal in its ayem battle with first-place Fox News: a $15 million streetside studio.

The facility, which was supposed to open last June, is exclusive to “American Morning,” the 7-10 a.m. news-driven skein anchored by Paula Zahn.

Under construction since May 2001, the studio is on the ground floor of the Time & Life building on Avenue of the Americas.

The 2,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility is protected by translucent bulletproof glass that faces the street and also features a turntable home base desk and movable tracking walls.

“Paula is warm but she also has some good edge,” said CNN executive director Guy Pepper, who designed the street studio for NBC’s “Today Show” and studios for MSNBC and “Dateline.” “We’ve tried to reflect that.”

“We’re doing a hard news show,” said Zahn, the former Fox and CBS morning skein vet who works with the show’s new executive producer Wil Surratt. “We won’t have cooking segments.”

Aside from the flashy visuals such as a plasma monitor wall, for example, the studio does have one technical setback: The show’s control room is a mile away at the cabler’s Penn Plaza headquarters.

Despite a few raised eyebrows about the distance, the network dismissed the skepticism. “An executive producer stays in the control room,” said Pepper. “Everything is done over headset or IFB line anyhow.”

Pepper also dismissed rumors of cost overruns for the studio. “If there’s a budget, we’re within it,” he said.

Though the facility seems like a pricey endorsement of Zahn (though skein is staying put, CNN is moving into the new AOL Time Warner headquarters on Columbus Circle), net execs could justify the costs with two reasons.

While they claim that the studio won’t have any effect on the show’s ratings, morning television is a crucial revenue source for nets.

Equally important, “American Morning” has shown strong momentum — albeit during a tumultuous year in which cable news viewership in general has seen tremendous gains.

In year-to-date ratings, “American Morning” has jumped in average total viewers from 184,000 to 490,000.

By comparison, Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” leapt from 276,000 up to 699,000. MSNBC’s morning skein “Imus in the Morning” is up slightly to 243,000 average viewers during the same time period.

The “American Morning” uptick comes after Zahn’s rather controversial start with CNN. She left Fox News while still under contract, prompting a Fox lawsuit last September against N.S. Bienstock, Zahn’s agency, which the net accused of inducing Zahn to breach her contract with Fox News.

The lawsuit went so far as to accuse Bienstock — which represents anchors such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly — of being part of “CNN’s larger scheme over the last several months to entice other networks’ talent to CNN in their bid to raise CNN’s lagging ratings.”

In March the Supreme Court of New York dismissed the suit and ruled that Fox had to pay the court costs.

More controversy followed Zahn when CNN aired — and quickly withdrew — promotional spots that were perceived as sexist.

“Morning” will inaugurate its new studio with a three-part travel and interview series with former President Bush that will begin airing on Sept. 18. Bill Hemmer is expected to be Zahn’s co-anchor although the net has not confirmed that.

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