09.24.10

CNN Chief Dishes on Exit

Embattled CNN President Jon Klein—under whom the network’s ratings had sunk—had recently renewed his contract, only to be fired Friday. Still, he was hardly surprised. Rebecca Dana reports.

CNN President Jon Klein got “Larry King”-ed this week, when the network he ran into the ratings basement finally sacked him, years after many observers started openly wondering why he still had the job.

“It is what it is,” said a sanguine Klein, who professed no major regrets about how he steered the foundering cable news channel during his six years at its helm.

He stands by the decision to make CNN the middle-of-the-road alternative to Fox News and MSNBC, even as those networks have hoovered up CNN’s prime-time audience. He doesn’t regret canceling Crossfire.

“Sometimes you have to create the abyss so it can be filled with something,” he said.

Klein said. “I felt a reckoning would be coming, but I didn’t realize it was coming now.”

But sometimes you create an abyss and it just stays an abyss, and not even Anderson Cooper can fill it. Klein experimented with many different hosts and configurations for the network during his tenure, from the “fire and ice” combination of Cooper and Aaron Brown up through one of his final acts, the controversial pairing of Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer, whose prime-time talk show debuts Oct. 4. CNN, founded by Ted Turner in 1980, is the third-rated cable news network in prime time, and some of the network’s programs have lost around half their viewership in the last year.

Despite the near-constant predictions of Klein’s imminent demise, which have dogged the executive almost since he began at the network, his firing caught CNN staffers by surprise when it was announced Friday. Klein received the news with some shock himself Wednesday afternoon, when he heard it from CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton.

He still has around two years on his CNN contract, having extended his deal with the network only recently. Why re-up a person only to fire him? And why allow him to shape your prime-time schedule, bringing in Piers Morgan to replace Larry King and giving life to Parker Spitzer, if you’re going to give him the shove before those programs even debut? Why finally do this now, when the network’s ratings have been sliding downward for years?

“There is no ‘why finally now,’” said a source close to Klein. “There is just no explanation.”

The explanation Walton gave, in a conference call with reporters Friday, is that to fire Klein later would cause a “disruption” once the new programs are on the air. News of Klein’s firing, first reported by FTVLive.com, was quickly overtaken Friday morning by an announcement from Jeff Zucker—subject of similar longstanding head-scratching over his continued employment—that he, too, was being “Larry King”-ed, in a fashion, at NBC.

“My expectation had been that the shows would launch and I’d be held accountable for quality and then the ratings and then profitability,” Klein said. “I felt a reckoning would be coming, but I didn’t realize it was coming now.”

Klein is the longest-serving CNN president since Tom Johnson, the former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who ran the network from 1990 to 2001. Klein’s replacement is Ken Jautz, the former head of CNN’s tabloid sister, HLN, a network that has transformed in the last decade from a running loop of the day’s headlines to the home of firebrand prosecutor Nancy Grace and newcomer-to-the-network Joy Behar, whose prime-talk show has out-rated Larry King Live on occasion. CNN staffers Friday speculated that Jautz, whose title will be executive vice president and who comes with considerable serious-journalism experience, might bring some of that tabloid sensibility, which has proven popular with viewers, over with him to the mothership.

Klein says he expects CNN to continue with the strategy of nonpartisan news broadcasting, since Walton was involved in crafting that approach. Klein himself will take some time before deciding what comes next.

“I’m not in a rush,” he said. “I’m fortunate that I don’t have to be. I’m going to spend some time talking to some folks, and we’ll see what the next fun opportunity is.”

He’ll also be watching the new CNN fall lineup, especially Parker Spitzer, his baby, which he hopes will turn out to be the long-sought answer to Crossfire-style shoutfests.

“There’s got to be a better conversation that can take place on the air, and that’s what Parker Spitzer is going to be: Adult conversations,” he said. “America’s thirsting for that.”

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Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.