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Stodgy CNN tries to get hip

Granddaddy of 24-hour newsies takes on younger competition

Bill Clinton was nothing less than a superhero for 24-hour cable news channels, providing a constant diet of high-wire presidential hijinks.

President Bush won’t come out and play in the same way — a fact that is making it difficult for round-the-clock newsies to keep audiences enthralled with the doings in D.C.

For no entity is this more true than CNN, which as the grandfather of round-the-clock news reporting has seen upstart, irreverent rivals like Fox and MSNBC steal onto its turf — and make off with a worrying number of its viewers.

Fox in particular has driven the news downmarket, with a relentless mix of high-decibel gabbers and gossip-mongers –all delivered with fast and furious panache.

Now, however, AOL Time Warner-owned CNN is fighting back.

Last week, CNN unveiled a revamped Headline News channel with the catchphrase “the news without the noise.”

However, the new-look newsie is so far noisy without being newsier: It’s a confusing collage of boxes touting news factoids, sports scores and weather — all designed, of course, to lure younger, hipper viewers.

The actual news anchor appears only in the upper right quadrant, leading some in Washington to rib that finding the anchor is like trying to find Waldo.

Revamp was signed off on by Turner Broadcasting topper Jamie Kellner, a TV entertainment veteran, brought in to inject energy into the mix.

There are also changes in the works at CNN proper, which recently brought on, aside from Kellner, former Time editorial director Walter Isaacson as topper.

The journo, who was responsible for putting a barrage of Hollywood stars on Time Magazine covers, is also well-connected in Washington and New York media circles. That means he should have easy access to the politically chic when brokering new network talent or trying to entice guests and contributors.

“The old CNN adage about the ‘news is the star’ has clearly been dropped in favor of promoting personalities, while still trying to emphasize its basic strength, which is worldwide reporting,” says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, who is also host of CNN’s “Reliable Source.”

“CNN is trying to take a solid journalistic product — seen by some as stodgy — and juice it up so more people will watch when there’s no crisis going on, but without surrendering to all attitude, all the time. And that is tough when you’re used to ruling the news roost and now have rivals nipping at their heels,” Kurtz says.

In the past 18 months, Fox’s ratings have climbed steeply, while CNN has suffered several dips.

While Isaacson and Co. try to make inroads among the Republican coterie in Washington, Fox News, dubbed the “GOP network,” is flaunting in-your-face personalities shouting about politics.

“Fox and CNN, they’re in a battle for supremacy of cable news coverage. For us, the challenge is to keep the momentum up,” says Marty Ryan, Fox News Channel director of political programming.

The lineups on both Fox and CNN are packed with politics: CNN boasts “Inside Politics,” “Crossfire,” “Wolf Blitzer Reports” and “Jeff Greenfield at Large,” while Fox News fields “Special Report With Brit Hume,” “The O’Reilly Factor,” “Hannity & Colmes” and “The Edge With Paula Zahn.”

To bring in edgier, peskier personalities, CNN is in discussions with Democratic soothsayer James Carville about some sort of stint on the network.

Meanwhile, MSNBC also has posted solid gains of late, especially with younger viewers. Anchor Brian Williams is a favorite among Capitol Hill lawmakers, and “Hardball” host Chris Matthews makes an ear-splitting impression.

Isaacson wasn’t available for comment, despite repeated requests.

(Paula Bernstein in New York contributed to this report.)

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