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CNN flips formats

Nets divvy soft, hard news

In a twist on their traditional roles, Headline News is getting a primetime lineup, called Headline Prime, with entertainment and talkshows, while CNN’s primetime lineup will refocus on what the network believes it does best: hard news.

CNN topper Jim Walton outlined the significant makeover for Headline News and signaled coming changes in primetime for parent CNN, in moves designed to bring both out of ratings doldrums.

Walton told the Television Critics Assn. Winter Press Tour in Los Angeles that CNN and Headline News would be programmed as if they were one channel to reduce competition and create additional viewer choices between the channels.

“They will be complementary; so if there is a talkshow on Headline News, there will be newscasts on CNN,” Walton said.

In a shift from its historic breaking-news role, Headline News will get two soft-news shows, including one-hour entertainment news program “Showbiz Tonight” at 7 p.m. and “Nancy Grace,” a one-hour legal affairs program starring the former Atlanta prosecutor, at 8 p.m.

Meanwhile, the corresponding hours on CNN would be counter-programmed for hard news, a departure from the mix of news, features and entertainment that airs on “Anderson Cooper 360” and “Paula Zahn Now.”

Walton declined to say if Cooper and Zahn would remain in those timeslots or how the changes would impact those shows. Cooper and Zahn suffer in the ratings compared with programming on Fox News Channel during the same hours, and draw significantly fewer viewers than CNN’s “Larry King Live” at 9 p.m.

Cooper and Zahn averaged 460,000 and 476,000 viewers in December, respectively, FNC’s “The Fox Report With Shepard Smith” logged 1.5 million and “The O’Reilly Factor” 2.6 million.

“Part of CNN’s challenge is to become an essential channel in primetime,” said prexy Jonathan Klein, who added no changes would be made to “Larry King Live.”

The new Headline News lineup marks a significant departure for the network, which has operated on a rotating format and hasn’t aired any shows devoted to entertainment or courtroom drama.

CNN execs said given the proliferation of news sources, viewers know the headlines by primetime and want more in-depth and distinctive programs. Entertainment and legal stories are usually the most popular on CNN.com during primetime.

Klein, in his first major presentation since taking the helm of CNN U.S. in November, repeated his pledge to reinvent the public-affairs program format after the cancellation of “Crossfire” as a standalone show.

“We’ve got a phenomenal team in Washington; we plan to throw open the time period and lay down the challenge to find the next way to talk to the public about politics,” Klein said.

“Showbiz Tonight” will be taped live, making it more current than other entertainment shows, which are generally taped several hours before airing. Show will be hosted by A.J. Hammer, host of “Hollywood Heat” on Court TV, and Karyn Bryant, who helped create “Sound FX,” a nightly live music news show on cabler FX.

“Showbiz Tonight” will be produced by Dave Levine, former senior producer for daytime programming at MSNBC and former New York bureau chief of “Access Hollywood.”

Former prosecutor and legal analyst Grace will bring in guests to discuss legal stories of the day for her eponymous show. She will remain anchor of Court TV’s live news show “Closing Arguments” from 3 to 5 p.m.

Grace joined Court TV from the Atlanta Fulton County District Attorney’s Office, where she served as a special prosecutor.

Both shows will premiere Feb. 21.