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CNN early bird Paula Zahn is going primetime

April 17, 2003
Hollywood Reporter

CNN early bird Paula Zahn is going primetime, but in a twist, the cable news network is plugging her into a two-hour show and moving the struggling "Crossfire" to late afternoons, giving its four combatants only 30 minutes to bicker.

In a move consistent with CNN's stated intention of returning to its news roots, the network is installing Zahn in a 7-9 p.m. ET show, "American Evening With Paula Zahn," which will likely be based on the morning show she is exiting, "American Morning With Paula Zahn," according to an internal memo circulated Tuesday from Teya Ryan, executive vp and general manager at CNN/U.S.

Zahn replaces, in part, Connie Chung, who left the network last month after being offered a reduced role in CNN's war coverage. Zahn has been anchoring in that time slot since March 31, when she took over the war coverage from Aaron Brown, a move that started the whispering that CNN would move her to primetime permanently.

The formerly hourlong "Crossfire" will move to the 4:30-5 p.m. slot Monday as the network also will shave "Inside Politics" in half at 4 p.m. and rename the program "Judy Woodruff's Inside Politics." Woodruff's airtime will actually increase because she will anchor the 3-4 p.m. hour that "TalkBack Live" had occupied before its cancellation at the outset of the Iraq (news - web sites) war. Ryan said Woodruff will report on politics throughout the day, a role that will expand in the 2004 presidential election season.

CNN hired Zahn away from Fox News Channel in 2001, paying her a reported $2 million, and the move seems to have paid off. Helped somewhat by the war, her morning show averaged 1.03 million viewers from Dec. 30-April 13, double the number from the same period a year ago.

But Zahn, a veteran of the breakfast wars -- she co-hosted "CBS This Morning" in the early 1990s -- fared less well the last time she held a primetime slot at Fox. Advocates, though, say her CNN show will highlight her strengths as an anchor, while she engaged mainly in interviews during her Fox stint.

This is CNN News Group president Jim Walton's third move to revamp the network back into the old CNN image, placing a greater emphasis on news programming and moving away from the star system instituted by the old regime of Turner Broadcasting chairman and CEO Jamie Kellner and former CNN chairman Walter Isaacson. Ironically, Zahn was one of the initial products of their strategy. Chung came almost a year later, in June 2002.

Chung's show evolved into a tabloid-style interview program, and along with Larry King's emphasis on celebrity guests at 9 p.m., critics said CNN seemed to be steering away from news even as it continued to brand itself as such.

Walton has rid CNN of the Chung show and canceled the audience-participation program "Talkback Live."

In her new slot, Zahn will compete against Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith at 7 p.m. and the top-rated "O'Reilly Factor" at 8 p.m. On MSNBC, she'll square off against "Hardball" in its new slot and the network's new Keith Olbermann-hosted news show at 8 p.m.

CNN did not name a replacement for Zahn in the morning; for now, Bill Hemmer will anchor the show by himself, Ryan said. "American Morning" executive producer Wil Surratt will remain in his sunrise spot. Sources have confirmed reports that CNN has interviewed CBS News' Jane Clayson -- former co-host of "The Early Show" and now a correspondent for the network -- for Zahn's slot.

Ryan did not elaborate on the news-interview format for Zahn's new show, but it is expected to evolve as it goes along. Zahn will anchor the show from CNN's new street-side studio in New York's Time-Life Building.

"This will be a destination news program developed over time that will take full advantage of CNN's domestic and international resources and anchored by one of the most savvy and thoughtful news anchors in the business," Ryan told the CNN staff.

Ryan tried to soothe any hard feelings at "Crossfire," saying, "We have talked to the 'Crossfire' anchors and have assured them all that we value their role across the network and intend to use them even more as we approach next year's presidential elections."

She said moving "Crossfire" and "Inside Politics" back-to-back will strengthen CNN's political programming.