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WJLA Hires Leon Harris From CNN

October 3, 2003
Washington Post

CNN's Leon Harris will join local ABC affiliate WJLA next month as an early evening and late night anchor, bringing a nationally recognized name to a station trying to reverse its ratings woes.

Harris, 42, will join Kathleen Matthews at 5 p.m. and Maureen Bunyan at 11 p.m., said news vice president Bill Lord. He added that it is uncertain which anchor Harris will team with at 6 p.m. Harris's last day at CNN is Oct. 10.

The future of longtime WJLA staffer Del Walters, who co-anchors the 5 p.m. news with Matthews and is now working without a contract, is unclear. Walters's agent, Gregg Willinger, would say yesterday only that his client "has a tremendous future in this business inside Washington or outside."

Doug McKelway, whose temporary assignment in July 2002 to partner with Bunyan stretched to more than a year, will also be left without an anchor chair. WJLA management was "always honest with me," McKelway said. "I was never led to believe in any way that I was going to be the 11 p.m. anchor."

"We will be meeting with [Walters and McKelway] to discuss their ongoing roles with the station," General Manager Chris Pike said yesterday.

Pike said he expects Matthews, who is in the middle of a three-year contract, and Bunyan, whose contract expires early next year, to remain with the station. "They're not contracts we tend to look at the end of," Pike said. "They're both long-term."

Bunyan said yesterday, "I'm thrilled that [Harris] is joining us. He's going to be a good fit."

Pike says Harris's hire concludes a three-year courting and is the latest in a series of high-profile signings at WJLA. In 1999, the station nabbed Bunyan, a widely admired anchor at WUSA, who left the CBS affiliate in 1995 during a contract dispute after a 22-year career there. Weatherman Doug Hill, another popular WUSA alum of 16 years, was signed by WJLA in 2000.

Last year, WJLA and NewsChannel 8, both owned by Allbritton Communications, completed a $20 million merger, creating the largest newsroom in the area.

"This, by far, was the largest significant piece remaining," Pike said yesterday about the addition of Harris.

Despite those moves, the station's news programming remains last or near-last in several time slots. In the most recent sweeps period, its 6 and 11 p.m. July newscasts finished behind two rival newscasts and reruns of "The Simpsons" and "Seinfeld." As of late, WJLA has not been helped by the dismal ABC prime-time performance, especially the 10 p.m. shows leading into the late news.

Harris, who celebrated his 20th year with CNN this summer, co-anchors "CNN Live Today" with Daryn Kagan from 10 a.m. to noon and hosts "American Stories," the network's collection of news features and reports from affiliates across the country. He joined the network in 1983 as a cameraman.

Although co-workers at the network speak highly of Harris, CNN executives moved him all over the lineup. In the past two years, he has shifted from early morning to mid-afternoon to his current late-morning slot. During one transition period in December 2001, he told The Washington Post he wasn't sure what time he would be found at next and found it "a bit disconcerting."

While Harris has pogoed around the lineup, many of his colleagues have landed high-profile gigs, including Paula Zahn, Anderson Cooper and Aaron Brown in prime time and Bill Hemmer in the morning.

Harris said his departure from CNN represents the "next step" in his life. "I've done everything I could do at CNN," he said. "It was a matter of reaching a point in my career where it was just time to try something different."

Harris said he's worked in Washington for only eight months on an assignment for CNN but still regards the capital as a "clear choice" for him. "The one thing I don't want to lose is the menu I have to order from every day. When I come in [to CNN], I'm doing national stuff, international stuff, stuff out in outer space.

"This market is such a unique blend of all that."