Retro-fitted CNN goes back to old formula

Cable net calling on safe, tested vet exex

NEW YORK — CNN is getting back in touch with its roots.

With the appointment of Philip Kent Tuesday as CEO of Turner Broadcasting and the recent naming of veteran insider Jim Walton as CEO of CNN, parent company AOL TW seems to be tapping into the past for inspiration, opting for solid inside choices rather than risky outsiders.

Kent, a Turner vet who had left the company just a year ago, is coming home to replace Jamie Kellner, who stepped down Tuesday after two years in the job.

Walton reported to Kent when the latter was prexy of CNN News Group in the ’90s.

With these appointments CNN seems to be trying to burnish its hard-news brand and convert its demo advantage into ad revenue rather than simply fixating on its battle for rating supremacy with upstart Fox News.

While the media tea-leaf readers are in a tizzy of speculation over the future direction of the newsie, the official line from CNN reps Tuesday was that Kent’s hire won’t have any immediate effect on the newsie.

During a news conference Tuesday, Kent said, for example, that a facelift for CNN was already underway before he left the company more than a year ago.

“CNN needed a higher level of graphics, sets, on-air and off-air promotions and a New York studio,” said Kent, who was once an agent for CAA.

Kent hails gains

Kent also praised recent ratings gains at CNN, which he said came “without hurting the integrity of the journalism.”

So the souped-up version of CNN, including the hires of anchors Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn, would seem to be in keeping with Kent’s long-time vision for the news operation.

As for anchor Connie Chung, she may have lost prime backers in Kellner and outgoing CNN chairman-CEO Walter Isaacson, but ratings for her 8 o’clocker have had double-digit increases over the past two months.

Kent is not likely to mess with those gains any time soon either.

Despite the claims of business as usual, New York-based CNN staffers suggest that the center of gravity is shifting away from Gotham — which outgoing topper Isaacson preferred and where its high-priced talent is based — to its Atlanta headquarters.

Back to the past

“It’s like CNN in 1998,” quipped one insider, referring to the pre-AOL dominated era of the newsie.

The net’s coverage of the Columbia space shuttle crash, for example, was spearheaded from Atlanta during the crucial first day of the tragedy: Its vet space expert Miles O’Brien, a solid reporter but hardly a celebrity, ruled the airwaves.

The media fixated on the absence of anchor Aaron Brown from the shuttle coverage, but in fact there was nary a CNN star to be seen, until “American Morning” anchor Paula Zahn came into work Sunday.

The net won a rare ratings victory over rival Fox News that Saturday, reliving its former ratings supremacy during breaking events.

Even though CNN didn’t renew the contract of several vet reporters in December, some other old-guard correspondents and anchors, including D.C.-based Judy Woodruff and Candy Crowley, have been seen on air more frequently in recent weeks. They’ve been front and center even more than one might expect in coverage of a pre-war buildup.

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