Anchors away as cablers back from Iraq

WASHINGTON — For TV news nets, the war in Iraq was a shot of high-grade adrenaline.

The war had all the elements of a blockbuster news story — a race across the desert, blinding sandstorms, ambushes, the fall of a diabolical dictator, soaring ratings.

Fox News exec producer Bill Shine says the bringing down of Saddam Hussein’s statute in the heart of Baghdad signaled an end to the war, and that it was soon after that the network began devoting time to other stories.

“It was a natural evolution back to normal programming,” Shine said.

So far, the transition back to regular programming has been virtually seamless.

Regular programming, however, doesn’t necessarily mean the same programming as before the war — at least for CNN.

Turns out the U.S. invasion of Iraq provided CNN the perfect cover to initiate major changes, all with little press scrutiny. For nearly two years, CNN has tried every which way to get back on top and reclaim the no. 1 spot from Fox News.

By far, CNN’s post-war sked looks the most different from its approach before the war.

Longtime TV personality Connie Chung was the first casualty of CNN’s spring-cleaning. The last episode of her primetime interview show aired March 19, shortly before the U.S. began bombing Baghdad.

When Chung’s show didn’t air over the next few days, people assumed it had been temporarily preempted to make room for war coverage.

But that wasn’t the case.

CNN announced that it wasn’t going to bring back Chung’s one-hour show, which aired at 8 p.m. EDT. Network execs said they had offered Chung other on-air opportunites, but that she declined and opted to leave altogether.

As U.S. troops took Baghdad, CNN announced that Paula Zahn would leave “American Morning” to anchor CNN’s new primetime news show, “American Evening.”

“This will be a destination news program, developed over time, that will take full advantage of CNN’s domestic and international resources, and anchored by one of the most savvy and thoughtful news anchors in the business,” CNN exec veep Teya Ryan told staffers in a memo.

To make room for Zahn’s 7-9 p.m. EDT newscast, CNN bumped its signature political show “Crossfire” from 7:00 p.m. EDT to 4:30 p.m. EDT and shortened it from one hour to 30 minutes.

The net also shaved 30 minutes off of Judy Woodruff’s “Inside Politics,” which now begins at 4 p.m., so as to twin with “Crossfire.”

Temporarily taking over Zahn’s ayem duties is Heidi Collins, something of an overnight sensation.

Collins, a local newscaster who joined CNN in Atlanta only recently, first worked for CNN Headline News. She began drawing attention in the first days of the war when she began daytime anchoring duties for the net proper.

When Zahn moved to the nighttime slot, Collins was put on a plane to New York, for a tryout on the morning show.

Aaron Brown remains CNN’s lead anchor.

MSNBC says it is prime position take advantage of CNN’s decision to bump back “Crossfire” to daytime. Just before the war, MSNBC relocated its political show, “Hardball” with Chris Matthews, to the 7 p.m. EDT slot.

“CNN has relinquished its prime, political slot,” one MSNBC exec said.

Otherwise, MSNBC’s primetime line-up is relatively the same as before the war, although anchor Lester Holt continues to do a war news show from 9-10 p.m. EDT.

Fox News also has largely returned to regular programming. The news net has little reason to fiddle with its winning formula, so has ordered no major changes to its primetime sked.

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