Joining the Boys' Club

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2007; 6:14 AM

"Am I nuts?"

Campbell Brown raises the question herself, nursing a Diet Coke -- she's only allowed one a day because of her pregnancy -- at the Mayflower bar.

She has just quit NBC, where she tasted the fruits of fame as a weekend morning host and "Nightly News" backup, to launch a prime-time talk show for CNN. "I know how risky it is. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't scary. But it's also exhilarating, and I miss that feeling."

Brown, 39, also knows that she's the latest young and attractive network host to try to make it in the cable wars. "Appearance plays a role, there's no getting around it," says the 5-foot-8 journalist, adding that she's worried about her impending weight gain. "It's television," Brown says, and there is "no doubt" she will have a harder time in 15 years. "We live contract to contract."

Brown is replacing Paula Zahn, 51, the former CBS anchor who was herself deemed a hot young thing when she made the leap -- first to Fox News and then to CNN, which initially touted her as "a little bit sexy" in promos that were promptly yanked.

"The test will be 10 years from now, when we see how many of us are still on the air," Zahn says.

Brown's move raises two intriguing questions: Why are only two other women (Greta Van Susteren of Fox and Nancy Grace of Headline News) on the air as prime-time cable news hosts? And is it possible to succeed with an 8 p.m. show built on news and interviews -- as Zahn tried to do -- when up against the ultra-opinionated likes of Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann?

Zahn was pushed to try several different formats, from politics to magazine-style reports. She concedes the constant changes hurt her ratings, but she also won plaudits for tackling such difficult subjects as race in America. Still, despite some gains with younger viewers, she sometimes slipped into third or even fourth place (behind Grace).

"Looking at the success of the opinion-driven shows, we tried to counterpunch as best we could, and we never sacrificed our objectivity or our quality," Zahn says.

Brown now inherits a similar challenge. "It's an incredibly difficult time slot," she says. "I can't obsess over that or I'll make myself crazy. . . . I'm not Bill O'Reilly. I'm not Keith Olbermann. I'm not going to do opinion. That's not who I am."

The arena remains dominated by white men. Other women fronting prime-time cable shows, such as Deborah Norville and Rita Cosby, have come and gone. Barred by her NBC contract from starting until Nov. 1, Brown will be eight months pregnant when she begins the show.

"I'm going to be waddling onto the set," she says. "If people have a problem with women in these jobs, I'll be getting a rude awakening."

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