Former Eye exec Klein replacing Hair

NEW YORK — Cable news channel CNN once again shook up its executive ranks in a move to translate its newsgathering prowess into better primetime ratings.

The cable newsie, in a three-year losing battle for ratings with rival Fox News, hired former CBS News executive vice president Jonathan Klein as president of the CNN News Group, where he will oversee all domestic news operations.

Klein, 46, replaces Princell Hair, 37, a former local station manager who came onboard with much hype just a year ago only to be sidelined to a new role as senior vice president of program and talent development.

Klein takes a job that has become a revolving door as CNN struggles to solve its ratings shortfall against Fox News. Fox took the ratings lead from CNN in January 2002 and has widened it since.

So far in November, CNN has reached 683,000 total viewers compared with Fox News’ 1.4 million, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CNN execs emphasize the channel hasn’t done badly over the past few years, as viewership and profits are both strongly up, but Fox has done even better, stealing viewers from the networks, other cable channels and talkradio.

“If you look at CNN versus itself and took it in a vacuum, it is doing very well,” said CNN prexy Jim Walton, who predicted profits at the channel would grow 35% this year, with a $45 million marketing campaign.

Klein said Fox has done a better job in promoting and defining engaging personalities on the channel, but insisted CNN will succeed not by becoming more like its rival but by taking storytelling cues from other successful cablers such as CourtTV, A&E and Discovery Channel.

“How we do it has nothing to do with Fox,” Klein said. “There are hundreds of cable channels out there, and I see in all of them things we could be doing at CNN. We know all those stories before they do. How do we take today’s news and turn it into tonight’s event?”

Walton said Klein’s first task will be to remake CNN’s primetime, which has struggled to find its footing and has no ratings hits outside of “Larry King Live.” Any ratings uptick in that daypart would have the greatest impact, because higher numbers are watching television.

Klein said CNN is full of on-air and production talent and his challenge will be to translate that passion to the product.

Klein was executive vice president at CBS News, where he oversaw “60 Minutes” and other CBS newsmagazine programs. In 1998, he left CBS for a startup, the FeedRoom, a broadband news network with such clients as ESPN, NBC Universal and USA Today.

A dot-com survivor, Klein said he feels as if he’s just “emerged from his cave squinting.”

But, he said, at FeedRoom he gathered valuable knowledge about news- consuming behavior. Principally, the online audience wants fresh content immediately and has little tolerance for drawn-out sagas such as the Scott Peterson trial.

“This Peterson thing is group-think and displays a lot of lack of creativity,” he said. “(Audiences) watched the beginning and the end, but in the middle, they were desperate for something else. This audience does not want frivolous stories.”

Walton said no decisions had been made on primetime lineups, and tried to debunk a rumor that the network had engaged in talks with CBS’ Dan Rather or that Lou Dobbs would be moved to the 8 p.m. slot.

Walton also put down speculation that the hiring of an old CBS hand meant merger talks would resume between the two.

“I’ve been around long enough to know you never say never,” Walton said. “No talks are taking place, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that as the broadcast news audience deteriorates and those viewers go to cable … you’ve got to ask if they’re going to be able to do what they do at the same scale.”

Time Warner doesn’t break out CNN financials, but Walton said that if any talks recommenced with CBS, “I think we would be in the driver’s seat.”

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