Brown out; Cooper becomes a leading man

CNN believes it has seen the future and it’s Anderson Cooper.

Cabler has announced that “NewsNight” anchor Aaron Brown will leave the network, his show replaced at 10 p.m. by a two-hour version of “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Cooper was added to “NewsNight” a month ago in a bid to capitalize on his media darling status in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At the time, CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein described the Brown-Cooper duo as “fire and ice.”

But that pairing got mixed reviews and didn’t hold the huge audiences that flocked to the net during its hurricane coverage in September. CNN execs had been considering putting Cooper at the sole helm of the timeslot, but that meant the likely departure of Brown, who spent a number of years as the face of CNN after he anchored its 9/11 coverage his first day on the job.

Over the past few weeks, Klein and Brown have discussed various other roles at the net, but those talks ended at an impasse.

With an average of 813,000 viewers, Brown was hardly CNN’s weakest link, but he lost viewers from his “Larry King Live” lead-in, and CNN believed Cooper has more potential to build a following at 10 p.m.

“Anderson brings passion, energy and informality that audiences of all ages find refreshing,” Klein said. “He’s easy to like and easy to watch.”

The shift of Cooper to 10 p.m. caused a broad ripple across CNN’s schedule. Wolf Blitzer’s “The Situation Room” will take over Cooper’s 7 p.m. timeslot, airing from 4-6 p.m. and then again at 7 p.m.

Kyra Phillips’ “Live From” will extend one hour, airing from 1-4 p.m. starting Monday.

That means CNN’s afternoon schedule will move from “Live From” to “The Situation Room” to “Lou Dobbs Tonight” and back to “The Situation Room” before moving on to “Paula Zahn Now.”

A rebroadcast of Dobbs, once seen at 11p.m. on the East Coast and 9 p.m. on the West, has been bumped to 1 a.m. on the West Coast due to the permanent addition of regular, live programming at 11p.m. Eastern.

Klein said the shuffle is part of a broad strategy to build the network around fewer, longer shows with more recognized brands: “American Morning,” “The Situation Room” and now a later version of “Anderson Cooper 360.” All three of those shows have undergone big changes since Klein took the helm of CNN/U.S. in November 2004, but none of them crack the top 10 cable news shows dominated by Fox News Channel.

While some shows have had gains, they make few inroads against Fox, which has solidified its place as the top cable news net. Cooper has averaged 713,000 viewers at 7 p.m. over the course of 2004, compared with 1.5 million for “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith.” At 10 p.m., Brown’s average of 842,000 trailed “On the Record With Greta Van Susteren” with nearly 1.8 million viewers.

It was just a few years ago that Brown was considered the net’s rising star. In addition to anchoring CNN’s live coverage of 9/11, the former ABC News correspondent went on to anchor the net’s coverage of the midterm elections in 2002 and the explosion of space shuttle Columbia.

But post-9/11 marked a period of dramatic growth at Fox News Channel, which built a primetime audience on hugely rated opinion shows such as “The O’Reilly Factor” (2.7 million viewers) and “Hannity & Colmes” (1.8 million). Fox hasn’t tinkered with its primetime schedule since 2002, when Greta Van Susteren left CNN for Fox.

CNN’s Klein said he’s trying to rebuild the net on a different model. “This year is about laying a foundation of editorial excellence and energetic packaging, and we are beginning to see the fruits of that,” he said.

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