TV news moves toward Hollywood star system

This was a good week for Connie Chung.

She started out as an underutilized reporter on ABC and ended up as the newest anchor on CNN, where she will have her own primetime show opposite Bill O'Reilly on the Fox News Channel starting in the spring.

CNN's bid for Ms. Chung is the latest in a recent flurry of offers made to recognizable journalists who are being courted with the promises and salaries usually reserved for Tom Cruise and Meg Ryan.

Desperate to stand out in the crowded television market, news executives are playing "let's make a deal" with people they hope will give them an identifiable brand - especially on cable, where the competition among news networks has intensified recently. On those channels, the anchor's seat is no longer for no-names, but is increasingly reserved for personalities who can deliver the news.

"[It's] very much the box-office concept come to television," says Everette Dennis, a media critic at Fordham University, in New York.

CNN and cable rival Fox News have been particularly aggressive in their battle for top talent, with Paula Zhan leaving Fox for CNN last fall, and Fox countering this year by stealing away legal analyst Greta Van Susteren, whose vacated 8 p.m. slot is the one Chung will fill.

In some cases, it's not just journalists being tapped: On Monday, MSNBC debuted a new program hosted by former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes.

CNN executives made it clear this week that they are officially ditching the network's decades-old approach dictating that the news, not the person reporting it, is the star.

"I never quite understood why it had to be an either/or proposition. I felt that you could have news as the star, and strong personalities that were trusted journalists that people wanted to watch," Walter Isaacson, head of the CNN News Group, told reporters on Wednesday.

Chung helps round out a roster that CNN has been developing over the past year. Other moves included hiring back financial anchor Lou Dobbs and successfully keeping Larry King in the fold. Mr. King's recent contract extension reportedly includes salary and perks that amount to somewhere between $26 million and $56 million over the next four years.

That sounds like a lot, but not when compared with the breathtaking fee of more than $60 million that NBC reportedly gave cheery "Today" show host Katie Couric to stay on for another 4-1/2 years - pushing her salary above that of "NBC Nightly News" anchor Tom Brokaw.

News of such deals raises questions in media circles about whether anyone is worth that much money and whether the resources could be put to better use, such as coverage of international news. Similar talk occurred more than two decades ago, when Barbara Walters hit the $1 million mark.

If outlets don't have deep pockets, "you have to believe that the money is coming out of coverage or other areas to pay for this," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

But that isn't always the case when it comes to celebrity anchors such as Ms. Couric and Mr. King. Rick Kaplan, former president of CNN's US division, says well-known journalists who can bring in an audience help pay the bills and make sure that more jobs aren't lost in tough times like these, when competition, shrinking ad dollars, and emphasis on the bottom line confront networks.

Take King, who has the toprated show on CNN. If he goes, that affects the shows that air before and after his, and is a blow to company morale.

"So if you don't give Larry King that extra million, and you end up losing him, let me tell you - you talk about two writers laid off, you're going to get 200 writers laid off," Mr. Kaplan says.

He also points out that the salary is likely more proportional to the size of print versus television audiences and revenues. The economic reality is that more people will tune in to see Couric in a day than will read a popular columnist like New York Times writer Tom Friedman in a month, he says.

Of more concern to some journalists is that news is becoming increasingly profit-driven. "I'm much more worried about the fact that we have replaced responsible journalism, as our main product, with pleasing investors," says Geneva Overholser, a University of Missouri professor and former editor of the Des Moines Register. "I think that's a much bigger issue than Katie Couric making big bucks."

Not lost on her, though, is the gender of many of those being wooed. "It's no small delight to me that all of this is about women," she says. "We've been egregiously overpaying men for years."

Chung is reportedly receiving about $2 million a year from CNN, and is eager to have her own show, which will originate in New York. A veteran journalist who covered Watergate, she has won three Emmy awards and is one of only two women to have been a co-anchor on an evening newscast. (Ms. Walters is the other.) Chung's high-profile interviews and frequent network-jumping (CNN is her fourth) have earned her mixed reviews and raised questions about CNN's choice.

"Why is it they think she's going to succeed at CNN when she hasn't succeeded elsewhere?" says Mr. Gottlieb. He and Mr. Dennis both wonder how she will fare when her show goes up against Bill O'Reilly, "arguably the hottest guy on cable," as Gottlieb puts it. In the long run, he adds, it's content, not a personality, that keeps people tuning in.

But Chung does meet the sought-after criteria of being a household name. As Mr. Kaplan points out, "You don't have to introduce Connie Chung to America - they know exactly who she is."

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