CNN has hired former NBC “Weekend Today” co-anchor Campbell Brown, who will likely replace Paula Zahn in a timeslot where the net is third place in the ratings.
The news cabler is looking to Brown to help revive CNN’s fortunes at 8 p.m., where the network competes against big personalities in Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.
CNN won’t say officially that Brown will land at 8 p.m., but CNN insiders expect her to do so, and for Zahn to leave the net when her contract expires this fall. CNN/U.S. prexy Jon Klein said another announcement would be made later this week.
CNN had been in talks with Brown for several months and offered her a contract, which NBC had the right to match. But Brown made it clear to NBC execs she wanted to make the move to CNN, so NBC elected not to match the offer, provided Brown stay off CNN’s air until November.
Brown will start in an off-air capacity at CNN on Sept. 1.
Brown’s hiring is the first step in a coming shakeup in CNN primetime that is expected to include the replacement of Zahn at 8 p.m. and possibly the shift of “Lou Dobbs Tonight” to 7 p.m. to allow Brown’s show to begin with a bigger audience.
She becomes the latest network-bred, high-profile hire for CNN as it looks to reinforce the problem areas in its lineup in advance of the U.S. presidential elections in 2008.
“Somebody of her caliber comes available only once in a while in the TV news business, and we are fortunate to have her,” Klein said.
CNN hired former CBS News White House correspondent John Roberts in 2006 and this year named him as co-anchor, alongside Kiran Chetry of “American Morning,” after several years of stagnant ratings.
In addition to hosting “Weekend Today,” Brown has been a correspondent for “Nightly News” and chief substitute for anchor Brian Williams.
CNN is currently running third in the ratings at 8 p.m. to “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News and MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” Headline News’ “Nancy Grace” also is a factor. During June, CNN was fourth to O’Reilly, Grace and Olbermann.
What to do at 8 p.m. has long been a sticking point for CNN, which hired Zahn from Fox News to take over from Connie Chung, who was ousted in 2003. The 8 p.m. hour has been key to Fox News’ success, as big numbers from O’Reilly have helped the net win five years in a row in primetime.
CNN has been searching for an answer, even approaching MSNBC’s Olbermann when his contract was up last fall.
CNN’s deal with NBC will keep Brown from competing with Olbermann until November. Brown is expecting her first child late in December, but said she hopes to return in time for the Super Tuesday primary on Feb. 5.
“For me it’s a rare opportunity to build a show from scratch, put my mark on it and cover stories I’m passionate about,” Brown said.