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New ‘Morning’ dawns at CNN

Cabler's plan: Return to hard-news roots

NEW YORK — The Fourth of July may be over, but the struggling CNN will be on the hunt for fireworks this week as it touts its new ayem and evening anchor lineup.

Former NBC News weekend anchor Soledad O’Brien makes her debut today on CNN’s “American Morning,” co-anchoring with Bill Hemmer.

Later in the week, CNN bigwigs will accompany the pair to the TV critics tour in Los Angeles, along with new back-to-back evening anchors Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn.

The coming-out party is particularly crucial, considering all CNN has to prove — namely, that it has a workable plan to overcome its identity crisis and falling ratings.

That plan, laid out by CNN vet and newly installed prexy Jim Walton, calls for a return to the net’s hard-news roots. Walton replaced short-lived prexy Walter Isaacson, and, after doing so, promptly canceled Connie Chung’s tabloid-style evening show.

Industry insiders are questioning how the four evening news anchors — Lou Dobbs, Cooper, Zahn and Aaron Brown — will differentiate their shows from one another.

Chasing Fox

Fox News Channel continues to widen its lead over all other cable news competitors, posting one rating record after another. The winning recipe: just the right mix of news, personality and point-of-view.

Last week, Nielsen Media Research released ratings for the second quarter of 2003 that showed Fox commanding more than 50% of the cable news aud, on average. Madison Avenue also is falling hard, forking over record ad dollars during this year’s cable upfront.

If there’s any solace within CNN, it’s that Walton doesn’t expect any quick fixes.

“We’ve recognized that this is a marathon, not a dash,” one top CNN said.

“American Morning” exec producer Wilson Surratt said there won’t be any major changes to the show as O’Brien and Hemmer commence their co-anchorship. Previously, Zahn was anchor.

Fighting light

“There is a growing appetite of news. As other shows go lighter and lighter, we are going to provide news in the morning. We are the real-news alternative,” Surratt said.

“You aren’t going to see cooking. You aren’t going to see summer concert series. Those things are good, but it’s not just not what we do here at CNN,” Surratt added.

Details are intentionally fuzzy when it comes to Cooper’s evening newscast, which airs from 7-8 ET, and to Zahn’s one-hour primetime show, which follows.

The official launch of both shows has yet to happen, even though both anchors are already on air in their respective timeslots.

Fresh leadership

The two-hour block is being exec produced by Jim Miller, a new face at CNN. Miller was most recently a consultant on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Miller has more experience on the entertainment side of the media universe, including a stint as head of programming for USA Network. He also authored the bestseller “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live” with Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales.

Miller said he did not want to discuss details about either newscast, since both are still in development. He did say both will be news-driven.

Initially, CNN announced that Zahn was going to anchor the entire 7-9 p.m. block. Neither Zahn nor Miller thought it was a good idea, and they were able to bring Walton and other CNN execs around to their point of view.

Cooper, a rising star, was thus handed the 7 p.m. spot. Cooper, Zahn and Miller are all repped by the same agency, Bienstock.

“Jim Walton is very clear about the branding of CNN. This isn’t a company or a network in search of itself. This is the premier news operation in cable,” Miller said. “And here is the greatest thing — if we are building a house, there is a great, great foundation.”

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