CNN going ’straight and narrow’ with John King, post Lou Dobbs

The insertion of John King to replace Lou Dobbs cements a long-term strategy CNN has embraced despite slipping ratings: toe the center line.

King, a CNN newscaster and reporter for 12 years, will replace Dobbs early next year with a 7 p.m. weekday show focused on politics.

"John embodies what we are striving for at CNN – he is steadfast in his objective and nonpartisan political reporting and has the passion for chasing down stories that really matter to Americans," CNN President Jon Klein wrote in an e-mail message to colleagues, obtained by The New York Times.

King, in an interview Thursday just before boarding a plane from Helena, Mont. to his home in Washington D.C., said he was told he might be replacing Dobbs just a few days ago.

“I won’t take sides,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of fun. I’ll steer the conversation, not dictate it. We want it to be fair, objective, interesting.”

He feels there’s still a home for this type of programming. “There’s room for everybody,” he said. “If people don’t have a pre-formed opinion on something and want to learn about it, they should come to us.”

Bob Furnad, a former CNN executive who retired in 2001 who now teaches at the University of Georgia, said he doesn't think King's arrival will make much difference in terms of CNN's ability to grow ratings or revenue.

“I don’t believe John’s got star power,” Furnad said. “He’s not memorable.”

In fact, Furnad is critical of CNN’s entire primetime lineup, which lagged behind the three other major cable news networks among 25 to 54 year olds in October for the first time.

Campbell Brown's hire last year "made no sense to me." Larry King draws way too old of an audience, he noted. And while he likes Anderson Cooper at 10 p.m., he dubs him "vanilla. He doesn't stick to the wall."

Bobbie Battista, a former CNN anchor who working with a production company that creates reality programming, said her former employer is "between a rock and a hard place."

“The journalist in me absolutely believes in what they’re doing, that it’s the best strategy to be the most trusted network,” she said. “The programmer in me is saying, ‘Wow! That’s going to be tough to win.’ ”

CNN, she noted, always sees ratings spike when breaking news happens but lacks the personalities to keep viewers around during fallow news days. Fox News, MSNBC and sister station HLN have built personality-based followings that tend to be less prone to dropoffs when the news cycle is slow.

(It's also true that all networks see ratings spikes during hard news stories. Last week, after the Fort Hood shooting, Shepard's and Mathews' numbers doubled while Dobbs went up two and a half times greater than normal. Nonetheless, during primetime, Fox still beat the combined MSNBC and CNN audience, according to TVNewser.)

“I find it ironic,” Battista said. “I hear so many people say to me that they miss the old CNN. But when you have these big personalities, that’s what people choose to watch.”

She said she was surprised CNN let Dobbs out of his contract. “That’s not something CNN normally does so it must have been mutually agreed upon,” she said. “Plus, CNN doesn’t normally cave in to public pressure.”

If CNN was keeping to “the straight and narrow,” Battista added, “why keep Lou Dobbs? He no longer fit that ideology. But if they’re going to take their current path, there’s no better person than John. He’s very impartial. Will people watch him? I don’t know.”

In the spring, Dobbs at 7 p.m. usually finished second among the cable news stations, ahead of HLN and MSNBC and well behind Fox News. In more recent weeks, he'd tend to slip behind MSNBC's Chris Matthews as well.

"If you can pull in big enough numbers while drawing fire, you can survive," said Michael Castengera, a senior lecturer at University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and a consultant to TV stations. He said that's why Nancy Grace has prospered on sister station HLN. But Dobbs wasn't creating an appreciable ratings bump.

During the week of October 26, a relatively quiet news week, Dobbs at 7 p.m. grabbed an audience between 522,000 and 655,000 viewers. He lagged behind Matthews on MSNBC, who brought in 601,000 to 789,000 viewers, and Fox News' Shepard Smith, with 1.7 million to 2 million viewers. (Smith is a news show, not an opinion show.) HLN's Jane Velez-Mitchell came in fourth with 344,000 to 435,000 viewers.

Dobbs also didn't move the needle compared to Wolf Blitzer before him or Brown after him.

“He has great credentials,” Castengera said. “He’s a solid reporter. But doing solid work doesn’t necessarily differentiate you. Someone has to truly appreciate this type of work. And taking a cyncial view, people don’t nowadays.”

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