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At CNN/U.S., Another Quick Change of Suits

By Lisa de Moraes
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page C01

CNN's U.S. operation has a new boss for the second time in just 14 months. This time it's Jonathan Klein -- former CBS News suit and, more recently, founder and CEO of high-speed Internet news network and video streamer FeedRoom.

He's replacing Princell Hair, though Klein is getting the title of president whereas Hair was executive vice president and general manager for CNN/U.S.; Hair will remain at CNN as a program and talent development suit.

Jonathan Klein is the new president of CNN/U.S., a job title with more than one slash in recent years. (Cnn)

Holding down one of the top jobs at CNN has been kind of like being a contestant on "The Apprentice" pretty much since the competing Fox News Channel hit the scene in the late 1990s. Eight different suits have warmed the top two seats at CNN since then -- five of them in this job alone: Rick Kaplan, Sid Bedingfield, Teya Ryan, Hair and now Klein.

Additionally, Thanksgiving week is one of Hollywood's traditional Take Out the Trash Weeks, when entertainment brass like to sack a suit or two before settling down to spend some quality time with their loved ones.

Even so, the Reporters Who Cover Television participating in yesterday's conference call unveiling Klein seemed a bit surprised by the news. Maybe it was because Hair had been given just 14 months on the job, which is a short tenure even at CNN. Also, CNN News Group topper Jim Walton opened the phoner by bragging that CNN is forecasting its best financial year in the network's history.

So after Klein gave the obligatory "it's about the storytelling" speech -- really, new hires at CNN should be required to take a pledge not to say anything sounding remotely like "it's about the storytelling" -- one reporter opened the Q&A portion of the festivities by noting wearily that CNN has "talked about 'storytelling' the last three rounds of management changes" and asked Walton how many times they thought they could discuss "storytelling" as the reason for an executive change "before it becomes sort of toxic."

Walton responded that not every ratings point is created equal; Klein added, "There's storytelling and there's storytelling."

Klein, who was executive vice president of CBS News from 1996 to '98, said he'll focus on prime time initially, that being where the big money is. But he declined to reveal what changes he has in mind, saying he needs to "get my feet wet" and "know what's in the cupboard" first.

After some cajoling, he finally did give the reporters something, saying he thought that "what CNN does awfully well is gather a lot of news and organize it and dispatch it. . . . They execute the fundamentals extraordinarily well.

"I'd like to address how we tell stories and take all the material that we gather and turn it into a compelling product that engages the audience in prime time."

I didn't say it was much; I said it was something.

Far more interesting, Klein noted that his six years in Internet news taught him that avid news viewers get tired of stories very quickly. They had no patience with the middle of the Laci Peterson murder trial, for instance, watching the opening and the verdict. "In between they were desperate for other stories," he said.

The case was a great example of "substance abuse," he said -- "Lack of substance that abuses viewers."

"This audience does not want frivolous stories; we always tend to think they want that stuff," Klein said, but "you can way overdo the light, sensational stuff."

In a statement, Fox News Channel said it wished "CNN well on their annual executive shuffle."

Fox broadcast network and the NFL are taking no chances on the Super Bowl halftime show next year, signing Paul McCartney to perform.

McCartney, who is two years away from "when I'm 64," said in the news release that he's looking forward not to mending a fuse, doing the garden or digging the weeds, but to "rocking the millions at home and in the stadium."

Janet Jackson really rocked about 90 million at home when she headlined this year's Super Bowl halftime show and closed her duet with pop-boy Justin Timberlake with a "wardrobe malfunction" that the Federal Communications Commission hopes will cost CBS more than half a million dollars.

This will be McCartney's second Super Bowl appearance. He also sang in the pregame show in New Orleans in 2002.

"We are extremely pleased to work again with Paul McCartney, one of the greatest musicians of our time, to create a memorable show," said Steve Bornstein, the NFL's executive vice president of media and a master of understatement. "As one of the world's most beloved artists and incomparable live entertainers, Paul McCartney will deliver an inspirational performance."

Gone too is MTV Productions, which had produced the past couple of Super Bowl halftime shows. It's been replaced by industry veteran and live-TV go-to-guy Don Mischer. Mischer presumably will not be miked, as he was by CNN when he produced the Democratic National Convention and was heard shouting that word the FCC has deemed indecent and profane on broadcast TV, when the obligatory convention-ending balloon drop did not go smoothly.

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