NEW YORK — Even a veteran of network television booking battles like Connie Chung has found the last few weeks seeking guests for her new prime-time CNN news hour to be eye-opening.
“It’s reached an insane level,” Chung said. “Everyone is going after stories. Even if we call at 6 a.m., that person has already been called by half a dozen people.”
Welcome to the cable news chatter wars, Connie.
Chung is arguably the best-known news personality to jump to CNN in the network’s 21-year history, and she’s taking over the troublesome and important 8 p.m. ET time slot. “Connie Chung Tonight” debuts Monday.
Her challenge is to carve out a distinctive hour in a television landscape cluttered with news and information.
Workers in midtown Manhattan put the finishing touches last week on a new studio that CNN has constructed solely for Chung’s show. It’s in a room behind a second studio, being built for CNN’s morning program, that looks out over the Avenue of the Americas.
Chung’s studio won’t be visible to pedestrians; there’s little foot traffic at that hour unless something is going on at Radio City Music Hall across the street. Studio walls picture New York’s skyline at night.
CNN executives see an opportunity to establish a news alternative in a time slot dominated by opinion: Fox News Channel’s hit “The O’Reilly Factor,” and Phil Donahue’s talk show set to debut on MSNBC next month.
“Both competitors are making it easy for us,” said Teya Ryan, general manager of CNN’s U.S. network.
That strategy is a microcosm of how CNN is positioning the network as a whole. MSNBC is emulating Fox News Channel’s opinionated talk, and CNN sees itself as the home for news.
Chung envisions her show opening each night with a detailed look at one of the day’s top stories, featuring an interview with the newsmakers involved. Her model comes from the network she just left, ABC.
“I wanted to call the program ‘Earlier Than Nightline,’ but they wouldn’t go for it,” she said.
Later in the show, she hopes to highlight emerging issues. CNN says Chung will offer the human story behind the headlines, and let pundits shout at each other elsewhere.
The show will need a distinct personality to establish itself, said Frank Sesno, a professor at George Mason University and CNN’s former Washington bureau chief.
“The first and most essential element is a great idea,” he said. “If they’re just going into this with the idea of having another interview program, I’m not sure it’s going to work. The show has to have a purpose, it has to be conveyed to the audience and they have to deliver every night.”
Ryan said Chung’s show will get its focus from the news. “I’m not going to fabricate a show that doesn’t allow us to be flexible and cover the news every night,” she said.
Besides, Chung is the personality, more than the show itself. CNN believes it’s the most serious news network of the three cable competitors, but in a marked shift in direction over the past year, it aggressively promotes its marquee names — Chung, Larry King, Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn.
Chung won’t be drawn into any predictions of ratings dominance; she’s been in the business too long to make things that easy for headline writers.
CNN will likely be happy just to narrow the gap with Fox. Bill O’Reilly has been killing CNN at this hour, averaging more than 1.9 million viewers over the past year to 726,000 for CNN’s “Live From” news program, according to Nielsen Media Research. MSNBC is at 364,000.
Fox News Channel’s ascendance to the top of the cable news ratings earlier this year is in large part due to O’Reilly’s margin of victory.
Perhaps it was confidence that drew O’Reilly and Fox News Channel chief executive Roger Ailes to a swanky Manhattan party last week to launch Chung’s show.
Ailes and his wife, Beth, are chums of Chung and her husband, Maury Povich. Chung once worked at NBC News with Beth Ailes. These personal connections may stop Fox from going after Chung with the ferocity it usually reserves for CNN; the network’s executives declined comment on her new show.
As for Chung, she’s taking a broader view.
“I don’t consider them to be our competition,” she said. “We are battling everybody who is on the air at 8 o’clock. I don’t think you can ever isolate, because I don’t think the viewer makes those kind of choices. They have the remote surgically attached to their hand and they’re just surfing constantly.”