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Friday, July 11, 2008

Changing The Channel

What are you watching Monday – Friday at 8PM ET? Is it CNN’s Campbell Brown Election Center? A few weeks ago, I came across an article on Broadcasting & Cable about Campbell Brown and her program. Here are the highlights:

“I have been swept up in the [election] news, and I'm grateful,” Brown says. “We had no idea this would be such an incredible story. It is driving my job and, as a journalist, you should be driven by the story. I know what I have to do, and it has made my transition easier.”

Eventually, the program will evolve into a more general, hard-news show, Brown says, but will continue to be heavy on politics.

Brown says she'll stand out by playing it straight. Where she says her competitors skew ideologically (by most observations, O'Reilly to the right, Olbermann to the left), Brown says she'll be news-driven and down the middle.

“My hope is to present a broad set of opinions and let viewers sort out what they think,” she says. “You're not going to get a perspective tilted to the left or right, at least not from me.”

The daughter of a Louisiana politician (her father was a state senator and Louisiana secretary of state), Brown caught the political bug early.

“Politics is like sports in Louisiana,” she explains. One of five children, Brown—whose given name is Alma Dale Campbell Brown—went on to study political science at Regis College in Denver and, after graduation, taught English in Prague as Eastern Europe was transitioning to democracy.

Brown went on to cover major stories at home and abroad and became the main substitute for [NBC] Nightly News. She added co-anchoring of Weekend Today to her duties in 2003. And while she says the morning show was enjoyable, she felt constrained by focus on lighter fare such as cooking and fashion segments. “I had a good time, but the emphasis was more on entertainment,” she says. “I wanted to cover things I cared about and was interested in.”

When Katie Couric left Today to anchor the CBS Evening News, Brown was considered to replace her. But after the job went to Meredith Vieira, several news organizations began courting Brown, chief among them CNN, where network president Jon Klein says he saw her as “someone with real CNN DNA.”

“She was more than just an anchor; she was a fully formed journalist,” Klein says. “I felt like there was a very interesting and vibrant personality yearning to bust out of broadcast television.”

Brown saw CNN as an opportunity to delve into hard news at greater length. “I needed more than a minute and a half to tell a story,” she says, noting the cable network's vast array of platforms, including radio, CNN International and online. “If you are a news junkie, there is no better place to be than CNN.”

Her arrival to CNN's primetime, however, proved complicated. Though she joined CNN in September, her NBC contract prohibited her from appearing on the cable network until November. Then there was her pregnancy, which she announced on Weekend Today before leaving the network (she is married to Republican strategist and Fox News analyst Dan Senor).

Brown squeezed in time on CNN, including as a questioner for a November Democratic debate in Nevada, before giving birth to her son, Eli, in December. After a short maternity leave, she eased back in with appearances in February on primary nights, including Super Tuesday. By March, she was anchoring full-time.

Only a few months in, CNN's Klein says Brown is already standing out on cable news, where multiple networks and shows are covering the same political stories. “Campbell brings ferocious independence,” he says. “She cuts through the clutter and the spin that people who come on cable shows try to force down your throat. She won't take the talking points for answers from anyone.”

Since the article was published, there have been many positive changes that have taken place with Election Center. But has anyone taken noticed? (The ratings haven’t significantly changed, so you decide.)

While the primaries were still dragging on and on, the 8PM hour became dedicated to everything politics. Not exactly the program that was originally scheduled when they announced Campbell Brown’s arrival. Brown has been anchoring the hour on a regular basis for four months and only just recently has the program started looking like its own program.

The past couple weeks have brought consistent segments like On Message, The Briefing, Politics is Personal, and Campaign Stagecraft. The emphasis is still on politics but the flow between panel discussions and reports from CNN correspondents has improved. Election Center is no longer the political filler in between Lou Dobbs and Larry King awaiting the next set of election results.

But what's taken CNN so long? Here they have a proven journalist and anchor. A former White House Correspondent. A former substitute anchor on NBC Nightly News. Former co-anchor of NBC Weekend Today. CNN puts together a brand new show for their new anchor and then changes their minds when the election coverage takes off. Adapting to what the viewers want makes sense, but why did it take over 4 months to start treating it like a real program?

A few weeks ago, I went looking on for the program's web site. On the TV Schedule page, the right side bar has links for the Prime Time programs. Election Center wasn't there.

Another sign of progress: Election Center now has a place on the sidebar.

And what did I find tonight when I clicked on the CNN Election Center link? Not a site dedicated to the program, but the Election 2008 section of the website. There is a little blurb about the program on the page if you look for it.

Are my expectations too high that a prime time program should have a website, just like The Situation Room, Lou Dobbs Tonight, Larry King Live, and Anderson Cooper 360? Well, CNN's newest program that only airs on the weekend, Fareed Zakaria GPS, already has a great website. It’s only been on the air a few weeks.

Watch just about any program on CNN and you'll see promotional spots for Larry King Live and Anderson Cooper AC360. Sporadically, you'll see something specifically for Campbell Brown Election Center. I noticed this spot on during Election Center tonight:

CNN has a credible journalist who is versatile enough to make their 8PM time slot successful. It might even have a chance to succeed if CNN invested the time to give it the support that the other programs receive. Brown has an uphill battle against her competition: both programs do very well in the Adults 25 - 54 demographic. Who knows, if those watching FOX or MSNBC knew what to expect from CNN at 8PM, maybe some of them would be interested in a No Bull! No Bias! program. At least it’s something that they won't find on the alternatives.

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