CNN’s new news stew

Guest Column

CNN Headline News is seriously broken. What began as a trendsetter is now in free-fall.

Blame it on the presentation. Blame it on the anchors. Blame it on the Hollywood-ization of news everywhere (remember Andrea Thompson?).

But any which way the half-hour is dissected, the result is the same: Headline News is not relevant anymore.

Ratings may have risen ever since the makeover began in 2001, but, ironically, its target aud now is nobody who watches news for any significant amount of time.

A decade ago, it was the only meaningful — and quick — game in town. MSNBC and Fox News weren’t even alive. The moments of the day — congressman faltering, war erupting, terrorists attacking or Michael Jackson speaking, belonged to Ted Turner’s soundbite empire.

And the hosts — Lynne Russell, Lyn Vaughn, David Goodnow, Bobbie Battista — became little stars in their own right just by virtue of their stoic delivery.

But other players soon joined the race, and after Jamie Kellner took control of Turner, Headline News bowed to pressure from those other newsies and tried to sex things up.

Now, in any 30-minute span, viewers are “treated” to recipes, music performances and two-anchor banter (“Thanks for that report, Chuck. I sure would hate to cross paths with a mad cow. Ha ha ha.”).

The outfit that used to stand for something is searching for an identity. Is it a “cool” place to go for news? Is it the cabler of record? Is it for my parents or is it for my fraternity brothers?

So here, with a new year upon us, are a few ways to help return the cabler to the strengths of the past.n Nix the glitz

Right now, only a third of the screen is being used. Know why? Apparently, viewers needed to read what they are also being told. Off to the side is a reasonably large box telling us, for instance, what the trouble signs are on an airplane. Apparently, it’s not obvious enough that one should call security if the person sitting next to you lights his shoe on fire.

  • That fickle ticker

    A sports fan, I appreciate being able to find out how my Cowboys did all season long, but the moment Headline News bowed to the ticker frenzy, I started to lose respect. Watching the score of the Syracuse-Colgate basketball game while hearing that nine people died in a mudslide is just plain icky.

  • Stop with the food

    What on earth was anyone thinking when they decided to cook up lamb stew or fruit cakes in the middle of a news cycle? Does anyone really turn to Headline News for tasty dishes? Does anyone really write down the recipes?

  • Rock not

    Maybe everyone in Atlanta thought that nothing goes better with a cooking segment than a musical segment. What NBC started and has continued to nurture with great success on “The Today Show” has caught on, sure. But having a John Mayer clone sing about lonely hearts right before a commercial break is so ill-conceived; I’d rather watch the cooking segment.

  • Check resumes

    I love young people. I’m a young person. But give me the worldliness of anchors like Wolf Blitzer, Aaron Brown, or Andrea Mitchell over fresh-faced kids who simply read what they’re given here. Yes, youth has a place: Sister station CNN’s Bill Hemmer is solid. But I simply won’t stay around long for someone who’s telling me about conflicts in Azerbaijan … when they probably never heard of the place before getting the gig.

  • Local zeros

    What bet did Headline News lose that they have to still carry local news at the end of each half-hour during certain time frames. In L.A., for example, the last ten minutes of every half-hour are thrown to the KCAL affiliate, and they talk about news that happened hours ago. And it’s repeated. Then they have a weather report. Nothing more small-time than having a major news operation like CNN switching to reports about dogs who surf or lunch ladies with hepatitis.

So there you have it. It’s not a lot. And I’m not an executive.

But I am a TV junkie, and it’s not that hard to detect what works while picking apart what doesn’t. So assuming these are some sensible ideas, let’s go back to the old format and see if people come back.

After all, are lamb stew and fruit cakes really that important when servicemen are dying daily?

Michael Speier is managing editor of Special Reports.

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