Can the Snack Food of CNN Headline News Feed Viewers' New Appetite For Serious Coverage?
The breezy approach for the relaunched cable channel seemed apt in an era when Chandra Levy was a hot story. Then came Sept. 11
by Warren Cohen
Tuesday, September 25, 2001

When news of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon broke Sept. 11, CNN was, of course, all over it. But not the folks at CNN Headline News, which essentially went dark when CNN's main news broadcast preempted it, along with all the other networks in the AOL Time Warner empire. Headline News was off the air until the next day and then was superseded by CNN from 10 pm to 6 am each day and through most of the entire weekend.

While the breaking stories merited the full resources of CNN's first string news team, it also raises questions about the reinvention of Headline News, which was relaunched with great fanfare on August 6. The multi-screen, multi-anchor show was Headline's firstrevamp ever, designed for a new era of news that didn't concentrate on the official pronouncements from Washington and New York. The screen was split, like a Web site, into quadrants, surrounding the on-air talent with factoids, ticker symbols, sports scores and weather data. And with anywhere from four to seven anchors on the set -- versus a sole newsreader before -- Headline gave topics like health, personal finance, technology and entertainment equal footing with so-called "hard" news.

The scheme also injected personality into what was once a dull resuscitation of facts. A telegenic cast was led by Hollywood actress (and news rookie) Andrea Thompson. She became the lead face during the prime time hours and bantered with fellow anchors to advance stories. Before the terrorist attacks, the new format seemed to appeal to viewers. According to Nielsen Media Research, Headline's total day viewership was up an average of 18 percent for the first five weeks of the relaunch compared to the same period a year earlier.

But now that the news environment has unexpectedly returned to a hugely vital national story, will Headline's hydra-like approach get attention? Some veteran news watchers don't think so. "The bite sized format isn't good for a major story," says Andrew Tyndall, whose Tyndall Report, tracks broadcast news coverage. (Tyndall's report used to be carried by "To use an analogy, in this environment you want the New York Times, not USA Today."

"I think they may have to examine whether they ought to change it again," says Steve Friedman, senior executive producer of The Early Show on CBS. "What seemed to be a good idea well executed when they did it may not be right going forward when you need analysis, interpretation and interviews that a longer format gives you."

Teya Ryan, the general manager and executive vice president of CNN Headline News, doesn't agree. She argues that the network is positioned to contribute to coverage of the evolving story in its own unique way. Ryan wants to maintain the speed and the specialty areas of Headline, which allows it to offer original stories. "I think this story actually falls beautifully in our format," says Ryan. "We can use our various categories to do other news that networks aren't doing."

Ryan lists a bunch of post-crisis examples. She says that the morning segment "Road Warrior" has been an even more valuable travel update with the nation's airline schedule in disarray. Health coverage has focused on air quality in New York and advice for emotional recovery at a time of trauma. And the entertainment segments have announced the status of various movie releases and Broadway shows and has examined how the disaster impacts Hollywood. "The format is very breathable and malleable," she says. "We've stayed true to who we are."

Another challenge has been to make sure the new team is up to the task. Ryan acknowledges that she hasn't yet hired all the personnel needed to fully staff Headline, though she says she can draw from the resources of CNN. She says she's incorporated two reporters to follow the investigations into the attack as well as a special segment on the Bush administration with CNN's White House team. Of course, the process works in reverse as well since CNN can cherry pick from Headline. Headline's primetime co-anchor Miles O'Brien has been dispatched to CNN itself since the attack because of his expertise in airline and aerospace coverage. "I certainly have fewer resources and we are using them in ways we haven't used them before," says Ryan. "We are still in process of building the network so it's an uphill climb."

The crisis may also point out the relative inexperience of some of Headline's new crew, most notably Thompson. Her hiring demarcated the difference between old CNN and new, but this is a moment when interviewing skills are more important than good looks. Would Ryan still hire Thompson today with the massively complicated story looming over the coverage for the foreseeable future? "If she was the right person for the job, I would," says Ryan. "And she's doing a terrific job so far."

Thompson and Ryan had another break for most of the past weekend as well when CNN preempted Headline again. Now Headline is returning for its full 24 hours and Ryan is optimistic that the network won't abandon the gains it has made before the crisis. "The rules still hold. People are getting back to their lives which will have the same pace to them as they did three weeks ago," says Ryan. "In the morning, before work, when people need quick hits to what's going on, we'll still have the same value."