CNN Chief Cites 'Anchor Chemistry' For Switch

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

CNN President Jonathan Klein, confirming a shake-up on the network's morning show, said yesterday that he sees "American Morning" as "the only real newscast in the morning."

The new anchor team of John Roberts and Kiran Chetry, who will start April 16, will stick with the show's no-glitz format, Klein told reporters, adding: "What the audience wants from CNN is hard news. . . . The more the others get away from it, the more that leaves us an opening to exploit."

Klein praised Chetry, saying he had been "blown away" by the woman he recently hired from Fox News: "One look at her tells you why she deserves the slot. She's a fantastic anchor. She lights up the screen." He described Roberts, a former CBS anchor, as a "kick-ass reporter" who had excelled in covering the Israeli-Hezbollah war and the Iraq conflict.

The current morning team is being reassigned. Soledad O'Brien will become an anchor and special correspondent for the investigations unit, and Miles O'Brien (no relation) has been named chief technology and environment correspondent.

Klein acknowledged that he is not satisfied with the ratings of "American Morning," except for a slight improvement in viewers ages 25 to 54. Asked why an anchor shuffle would change things, he said the program has moved toward shorter, faster stories but that "anchor chemistry is an important factor."

Roberts, a Canadian, said the assignment is a return to his roots as host of the program "Canada A.M.," as well as his days co-anchoring an early-morning CBS show with Meredith Vieira, now the co-host of NBC's "Today." He said he would still do reporting by anchoring from the road.

"I don't think it has to be hard news like you're taking Robitussin," Roberts said. "A morning show is about engaging the audience. I don't think you should be doing lighter stuff. I've never figured out what any viewer gets out of a fitness segment or cooking pancakes on the plaza."

Chetry, for her part, talked about the importance of "water cooler" topics. "There are lots of big and daunting issues, but there's also the quirky side of life, and we're not going to ignore that either," she said. "As long as there's a healthy mix, hopefully people will tune in."

Chetry, a University of Maryland graduate, began her career at the Montgomery County station News 21 in Rockville, and said she got her big break covering a murder when the regular correspondent was at the dentist. She said she is accustomed to early hours because she anchored a morning show in Sacramento and worked the overnight shift at Fox News.

Chetry denied that she acted unprofessionally in pushing for a morning-show shot while renegotiating her Fox News deal, as Fox officials charged in refusing to renew her contract. "I played by the rules," she said. "I will always be grateful for the opportunities there, but it was time to go."

In March, "Fox & Friends" led the cable news pack, averaging 692,000 viewers from 6 to 9 a.m., a decline of 7 percent over a year earlier. "American Morning" averaged 376,000 viewers, up 2 percent. MSNBC's simulcast of the Don Imus radio show showed the greatest growth, averaging 354,000, a 35 percent jump over a year ago.

"American Morning" was down 6 percent in the first three months of the year, while CNN's overall ratings were up 15 percent.

"Fox & Friends" is a more personality-driven news show, with co-hosts Brian Kilmeade, Gretchen Carlson and Steve Doocy often expressing their opinions. "Imus in the Morning," which includes interviews with politicians and journalists, revolves around Imus's irreverent take on the news.

Klein depicted the new assignments for the O'Briens as "matching our on-air talent to their passions."

Soledad O'Brien said she has already been reporting for planned specials from Cuba and New Orleans, working almost every weekend. "It will be great to be devoting all my energy to it," she said. "I've done morning shows for 10 years. It will be a little strange to be on the treadmill watching 'American Morning,' but I don't think I'm going to be broken up about not doing it."

Miles O'Brien, who joined the program two years ago, said he had never sought an anchor job at CNN and was frustrated that he missed the most recent space shuttle launch for the first time since joining the network in the early 1990s. "I've always taken these jobs with a twinge of disappointment that I'd be tied to a 24-karat desk," he said. "I'm looking forward to freedom and not being stuck in an air-conditioned studio. While you expect things to last forever, this is TV. Especially in my income-tax bracket, it's not a very secure business."

Klein was also asked about this week's announcement that opinionated CNN anchor Lou Dobbs will contribute to CBS's "Early Show" -- which competes with "American Morning." Dobbs joins Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta among CNN journalists moonlighting for CBS. "It's good for us to expose our talent to news viewers who might not realize who we've got on the air," Klein said.

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company