CNN News Group Chairman and CEO Walter Isaacson said he's surprised at the media coverage given to the recent exit of several correspondents, insisting it's been a "stable" year.

Among those who are bowing out, Garrick Utley is the most familiar to viewers. The contracts of Brooks Jackson, Allan Dodds Frank, Mark Potter, Bruce Francis and James Hattori also were not renewed.

"It's actually a very small turnover," Isaacson insisted via satellite from CNN's offices in Atlanta to the TV reporters assembled here for the winter TV press tour.

"This is not some youth movement," he added, noting the hire of Justice Department correspondent Mike Brooks, whom he described as a "veteran" journalist.

Reports that Bruce Morton is leaving are premature and CNN has not asked him to leave, Isaacson said. Morton, whose contract ends this month, told the Associated Press today that he has not decided whether to remain.

Isaacson also said he's in favor of the much-covered possible merger with ABC News, saying it will "help protect the next 10 to 20 years of good journalism." He expects a "couple more" months of negotiations, which are going on among executives at "a higher pay rate" than his.

Here's one way you'll be able to gauge how those talks are going: CNN/US General Manager Teya Ryan said Willow Bay's future at CNN is under discussion. Bay is the wife of Robert Iger, president of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC. CNN has canceled her two weekend programs, "Pinnacle" and "Business Unusual."

Last year CNN fell behind Fox News Channel with an average of 1.2 million prime-time viewers to CNN's 898,000. However, Turner Broadcasting Systems Executive Vice President Brad Turrell noted today that the past two years have been CNN's best, ratings-wise, since the advent of cable-news competition.

Day 1 of Winter TV Press Tour 2003 looked a lot like the satellite TV programming that JetBlue offered on the way out here from Washington: lots and lots of infomercials.

The cable networks, which consume the first four days of this press tour, do not want reporters to actually ask questions when their executives take their turns onstage to talk about their networks and their new programming. Cable networks like to think of their portion of the press tour as a marathon of plugs for their new programs.

It's okay if the reporters smile appreciatively when a cable suit reveals the networks' miraculous growth in distribution. And, of course, reporters are good to have around to give stars someone to talk at when they are waxing emotional about their new projects -- kind of like those faux audiences on infomercials.

Speaking of infomercials: Do yourself a favor and don't fly JetBlue on Sunday mornings. JetBlue says it has satellite TV, which would naturally make it the airline of choice for a Reporter Who Covers Television. What it actually offers is satellite TV lite -- 23 channels, though a very nice flight attendant tells me they will be adding more channels any day now. (She said the airline has to be careful which channels it allows in its cabins, since kids also fly, but then the only broadcast network on the Sunday flight from Dulles to Long Beach was NBC, which is on the Parents Television Council's hit list because it airs "Friends" at 8 p.m.) And of the channels that JetBlue offered, a large number -- including the Food Network, the Travel Channel CMT -- routinely run infomercials on Sunday mornings.

At the press tours, cable nets mostly prevent critics from asking questions by eating up all their allotted time. On the other hand, Rob Sorcher, American Movie Classics programming senior vice president, simply refused to answer a question about why AMC had abandoned its business model as a commercial-free haven for old-movie fans. He ordered critics to ask questions only about AMC's new stop-motion foam animation series, "The Wrong Coast," which, AMC explains, sort of puts together two very different movies, like "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Osbournes." Yes, I know "The Osbournes" is not a movie; send your letters to AMC.

Sorcher had killed as much time as possible talking about the miraculous growth of AMC's young audience since it started jazzing up its old movies with commercial breaks that are apparently so appealing to younger viewers, while emphasizing more newer movies and original programming/ Meanwhile, AMC's audience of older viewers has diminished, as planned, he added.

Sorcher did not provide any actual numbers. Here they are: In calendar 2002, AMC averaged 341,000 viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, which for AMC is a "younger" viewer. In 2000, AMC averaged 351,000 25-to-54-year-olds.

Among older viewers, AMC's audience also went down during those two years. In 2002, AMC averaged 444,000 viewers 50 and older. In 2000, the network averaged 499,000 viewers in that age bracket.

So successful was AMC at running out the clock with infomercials on "The Wrong Coast" and a documentary about "Gay Hollywood" that it had to bump a Q&A session on another planned documentary, about the effects of overnight fame on participants in reality shows. That program will follow actual participants of actual reality shows, including Tonya Paoni, who segued her star turn on "Big Brother 3" into a spread in an upcoming issue of Playboy.

Unluckily for the Hallmark Channel, critics got in enough questions to discover that Sean Young, star of the channel's upcoming TV movie "King and Queen of Moonlight Bay," did not realize that she was working for the Hallmark Channel. "I didn't know that Hallmark had its own cable [channel] now," said Young. "That's news to me. They have, like, the Hallmark cable network now?"

MSNBC is being forced to fast-track its hire of Jesse "the Blabbermouth" Ventura because of Ventura's loose lips.

An insider says an announcement is "imminent," although the network had planned to make the announcement in a couple of months. Ventura, whose governorship of Minnesota ended today, blew those plans late last week when he told journalists at a news conference that "as of Monday you will fear me" -- as if Ventura being governor wasn't frightening enough.

And for good measure he added that he was having a party over the weekend that his "new boss" would attend. "That's all I'm going to say," Ventura said, which would be a first.

Trade paper Variety reported that MSNBC chief Erik Sorenson attended Ventura's farewell party. One insider confirmed to The TV Column that Sorenson was there.

CNN's Walter Isaacson says the departures of Garrick Utley, Brooks Jackson, Allan Dodds Frank, Mark Potter, Bruce Francis and James Hattori are nothing out of the ordinary.