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CNN sent 11 crews to cover Japan's earthquake and tsunami, including headliners Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta. Anchors Wolf Blitzer and Piers Morgan were elsewhere last week: Blitzer hosting his evening newscast from France, Egypt and Tunisia, and Morgan heading to Israel to interview Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The deployment was the most visible example yet of new domestic chief Ken Jautz's vision of CNN as a substantive news network that takes full advantage of its company's newsgathering heft to concentrate more on journalism and a wide range of stories and less on political debate.
The abundance of news from Japan, Egypt and Libya makes this a particularly well-timed strategy. CNN is leading MSNBC in prime-time viewership in March and, if that holds up, it would be its first time in second place behind Fox News Channel in the cable news ratings since January 2010, the Nielsen Co. said. CNN's weekday prime-time audience is up 28 percent this year compared to the last three months of 2010, with MSNBC up 5 percent and Fox down 8 percent in the same period.
During the past few difficult years, CNN seemed more defined by what it took pains to say it wasn't -- a partisan talk network -- than what it was.
"It's important to stand out by being different," said Jautz, a longtime CNN executive who replaced Jon Klein last fall at the helm of the domestic network. "If much of the cable space is politically oriented and partisan politically oriented, the way to be different is ... to talk about different subject matters and approach it differently."
Jautz isn't afraid of opinion; as head of the HLN network he gave Glenn Beck a job. But he wants all points of view represented. He doesn't like the term nonpartisan and instead prefers "aggressively independent." Jautz's background is also deeply rooted in international news. Before moving into management to run HLN and before that CNNfn, Jautz spent much of his career overseas for CNN and The Associated Press. He covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the first Gulf War as a journalist.
CNN has built the biggest infrastructure in U.S. television news, partly with the help of money-making sister networks in CNN International and HLN. Since it collects advertising revenue as well as subscriber fees from cable and satellite systems, and its main business is news, that gives CNN an advantage over advertiser-dependent broadcast networks that are cutting back in staff and relying more on video news services for images overseas.
Over the past few years, it was hard to tell that CNN had such a large international presence. CNN International, while produced out of the same Atlanta headquarters as the domestic network, might just as well have been part of another company.
Under Jautz during these big international stories, CNN has begun featuring news talent from CNN International. Hala Gorani has co-anchored newscasts on the main network, and reported from Egypt alongside Cooper. Isha Sesay co-anchored Blitzer's "Situation Room" while he was on the road last week.
"It certainly is noticeable that the network is using its news resources to cover hard news stories in ways in which its competition just can't do," said David Bernknopf, a 20-year CNN hand who now operates his own video production company, referring to an advantage CNN has in staffing.
CNN's hope is to create a contrast and make it appear that rivals Fox and MSNBC are one-dimensional with a focus on political arguments.
Even before the recent rush of breaking news, Jautz said he has tried to vary CNN's output to avoid the frequent tendency in cable news to concentrate on one story to the exclusion of most others.
He also wants a greater consistency in tone among different CNN broadcasts. Although former CNN anchor Rick Sanchez was fired Oct. 1 for remarks that included calling Jon Stewart a bigot, it's difficult to imagine his buzzy, social network-heavy afternoon show would have continued the way it was under Jautz. Another excitable daytime anchor, Ali Velshi, seems calmer, more serious these days.
"You have to be a place where people have an expectation of you and you fulfill their expectations," Jautz said.
Jautz said he wants it to be a network where viewers learn something when they tune in. That doesn't mean turning its back on stories -- celebrity items, for example -- that don't fit some people's definition of serious news.
A model for CNN could be NPR, which has built a strong business as a substantive news network despite management troubles, Bernknopf said.
"There's a very discernible difference in terms of tone and personality and content," said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. "It helps that there's about 12,000 global crises taking place all at once because that plays to CNN's strengths."
It has always been best for the network when it realizes that news is a star, he said.
CNN still has work to do. It recently rebooted Eliot Spitzer's prime-time show with the exit of former co-host Kathleen Parker. Morgan's show can be wildly uneven -- a serious interview with Netanyahu one day, an ill-timed chat with Hugh Hefner on a day of big news from the Middle East on another. Cooper has asserted himself and his ratings are improved, although it has yet to be seen whether the syndicated daytime show he will start next season proves to be a distraction.
Not everyone is convinced that there have been significant changes, despite the network's recent international coverage. "CNN is set up to cover that sort of stuff," said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, "and would have done that anyway."
Even though CNN scored some rare ratings wins recently, Fox is no doubt out of CNN's reach on a regular basis. But MSNBC, with the loss of its lead personality Keith Olbermann in January, could be vulnerable. The question for CNN, as always, is whether it can keep a larger audience when the big news stories quiet down. Competitors with a heavy emphasis on politics play to their strengths when a presidential campaign starts.
Sesno said Jautz has taken an important step by establishing a more consistent voice on the air.
"That is going to be a positive development for CNN," he said, "because with voice comes an identity, with voice comes a personality."