Walter Isaacson’s Plan to Save CNN: Ignore Murdoch’s Hungry Foxes

In taking the helm of CNN, the world’s most recognized news network–also known as the network without Bill O’Reilly–former Time Inc. editorial director Walter Isaacson inherits a diminished franchise still searching for an identity in the post-Saddam, post-Monica, post-Ted Turner television-news era.

It’s up to Mr. Isaacson, 49, to find CNN’s place in a TV-news landscape where flak-jacketed foreign correspondents have been largely replaced by stateside screamers. Now a generation old and tucked beneath the AOL Time Warner Inc. umbrella, CNN continues to cover the news, but it no longer drives the competition. These days, everyone’s mesmerized by shiny new toys like Fox News, a nimble, frothy network that has shown that packaging and point of view can work ratings wonders; in the absence of action, today’s news operations will stir up their own.

This is what CNN hasn’t been able to do; this is what Mr. Isaacson is up against. Stepping out of his comfortable chair as editorial director of Time Inc., the honey-voiced, New Orleans-raised Rhodes Scholar assumes control of a formidable news operation being drowned out by clamorous competition.

And he knows it. “I travel around the world, travel around the country, and [CNN] is the most important, most trusted source for information anywhere–and it needs a little bit of juicing up,” Mr. Isaacson said in an interview on Tuesday, July 10, a day after he was named CNN’s chairman and chief executive. “It needs to get really comfortable with the mandate of great journalism. There was a perception that it was losing its way.”

But where to start? Stripped down and semi-rebuilt after the merger with AOL, the new CNN still looks and sounds awfully similar to the old CNN. They remain superb on breaking news (declare war or get your trailer sucked up in a tornado and they’re on the case), but on your basic news day, CNN feels like a tattered T-shirt that has simply been turned inside out and put on again. There’s good old Jeff Greenfield … with a new show. There’s good old Greta Van Susteren … with a new show. There’s good old Larry King … with the same show. And hey, there’s good old Lou Dobbs again, back from Space.com. Everyone’s a little richer, a little grayer and a little less cool; if this is “change,” it’s the TV-news equivalent of Jefferson Airplane becoming Jefferson Starship.

Mr. Isaacson, naturally, would like to spice things up. “When there was news, [CNN] was glorious,” he said. “When there wasn’t big news, it didn’t have enough personality or entertainment.”

Of course, CNN’s past efforts to get jiggy have also been problematic. The network appeared to be on the verge of creating its next star in the affable conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, but then it all but Beavis-ized him in a wacky gabfest called The Spin Room . (Mr. Carlson has since been moved to good old Crossfire .) Take 5 , an earnest young reporters’ roundtable that hoped to tempt the MTV crowd, typically has all the sizzle of a Brookings Institution policy luncheon. And, of course, there’s Roll Over Murrow, a.k.a. Andrea Thompson, the soon-to-be CNN Headline News anchor better known as that scrappy blonde from NYPD Blu e.

There is hope that Mr. Isaacson–a man who gave Time a badly needed splash of Grecian Formula–can bring some vibrancy to CNN without turning it into Kurt Loder-ville, or worse, When Anchors Attack . A major task will be to match the network’s reporters and personalities to shows that properly utilize their skills–create CNN shows, not CNN shows that look like other networks’ shows. Such development has never been their strongest suit. Traditionally, said a source, CNN’s news managers have known breaking news, but they didn’t “really have a notion of what good programming is.”

On the development front, there will also be close watch paid to how Mr. Isaacson integrates other AOL Time Warner properties into the lineup. In the past, these mixed-media marriages–which should be no-brainers–have not been successful ( Newsstand , anyone?). Mr. Isaacson, now deeply integrated into the AOL-T.W. culture, is expected to reverse this. “He’s got great journalistic instincts, he understands television, he understands new media, and he understands all of the divisions of AOL Time Warner in a way that makes him a natural for the job,” said Time Inc. editor in chief Norman Pearlstine.

Of course, CNN’s strong suit has always been news gathering. Though the network’s international coverage isn’t what it once was, the new boss has quickly declared himself a defender of reporters and “great stories.” Mr. Isaacson said he’s interested in using new CNN hire Aaron Brown (formerly of ABC) to lead a “really smart” prime-time news show that “broadens the definition of news so it’s not just what they have announced in foreign capitals today, or in Senate hearings.” (Mr. Isaacson also sounded intrigued, though cautious, about the possibility of a future partnership with a broadcast-news network; CNN has been rumored to be playing footsie with both CBS and ABC.)

And though he doesn’t come out and say it, it’s clear that Mr. Isaacson doesn’t intend to parrot Fox News Channel’s bang-the-pots-loudly formula. “I don’t know what Fox’s mission is, and I don’t want to try to categorize it,” he said. Like a lot of his new colleagues, Mr. Isaacson took pains to emphasize that CNN has not lost large numbers of viewers. Competitors like Fox and MSNBC may have grown in size, he said, but not at the expense of CNN’s audience. “Part of this is misperception,” he said. “There isn’t a ‘crisis at CNN,’ as some would say. Ratings are fine. Ad revenues are fine.”

Perhaps. But it’s fair to say that CNN has lost its swagger. They may feel like they’re playing in a different (read: superior) league from the competition, but they’re no longer the standard bearers–even if they think they should be. (If you ever want to drive a CNN-er bonkers, mention how much fawning media coverage Fox News has received in the past year.) Company morale, though better than it was in the wake of this winter’s merger blood bath, has been adrift. Reestablishing the network’s relevance to the public will be an even greater challenge.

How they’ll do it is up to the new guy. Ted built it, Saddam put it on the map, now it’s Walter Isaacson’s turn to put it back together again.

Tonight on CNN, Mr. Isaacson’s go-to guy, Lou Dobbs, asserts himself on Lou Dobbs Moneyline. [CNN, 10, 6:30 p.m.]

Thursday, July 12

Nice girls do finish last–especially nice girls on NBC! On July 10, the Peacock aired its last episode of Kristin , the sitcom on which Broadway sprite Kristin Chenoweth played a God-fearing goody-two-shoes trying to survive in soulless Manhattan.

No wonder it bombed. Besides, Ms. Chenoweth didn’t cover herself in rats, drive a stock car or play mean-spirited practical jokes on unsuspecting rubes. How did she think she’d survive on the increasingly Hee Haw -ish network of Fear Factor, NASCAR and Spy TV ?

“When you look at Spy TV and you look at Kristin , you see two ends of a spectrum,” said Kristin ‘s creator, John Markus. “We’re not related. We’re not even distant cousins.”

It was clear that the Jeff Zucker-era NBC didn’t want much to do with Kristin . Green-lit by Mr. Zucker’s predecessor as entertainment chief, Garth Ancier, the Paramount-produced show languished in NBC’s dugout until June, when it was launched with minimal fanfare, all but doomed to fail.

“Our biggest obstacle was that we were associated with a previous regime,” Mr. Markus said, referring to Mr. Ancier’s tenure.

Still, Mr. Markus thinks he and Ms. Chenoweth were on to something. Though Kristin got some truly terrible reviews, Mr. Markus feels the show struck a chord among viewers who were looking for something a little less crude.

“It’s been challenging to do a show about a good person,” he said. “I think we are either incredibly ahead of the curve or way behind it.”

Mr. Markus, who will continue to develop shows for Paramount Studios, said he might be “shy” about proposing another semi-wholesome show, but didn’t rule out the possibility. “I’ve been known to walk into the same propeller twice,” he said.

Hey, that’s exactly what someone does on tonight’s episode of Spy TV ! [WNBC, 4, 8:30 p.m.]

Friday, July 13

Everybody’s bonkers for NASCAR racing these days, it seems–everybody except New Yorkers, whose interest in life-threatening high-speed driving remains limited to cab rides to La Guardia.

Indeed, on July 7, the New York City metro-area market came in 46th out of 50 national markets for NASCAR watchers, though NBC’s NASCAR debut attracted large audiences in traditionally sympathetic locales like Atlanta, Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla., and won the night for NBC nationally. So stick that in your Mercedes S.U.V. tailpipe and smoke it, you strap-hanging sophisticates.

Tonight, compensate for your ignorance by buying a blue-and-maize Michael Waltrip-NAPA Auto Parts fanny pack on QVC’s For Race Fans Only , hosted by fast driver Bobby Labonte. [QVC, 69, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, July 14

Big Brother 2. CBS, the tribe has spoken: This show’s a turkey. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]

Sunday, July 15

Holy tectonic! The plates are shifting in the creaky world of Sunday-morning political chatter. After 5,329 years (well, 20) on the air, ABC’s This Week has slipped into third place for the first time. And moving into second position behind Meet the Press is Face the Nation, the cod-liver oil of Beltway talk shows, hosted by the affable Texan Bob Schieffer.

“We just keep slugging along,” Mr. Schieffer said the other day of the frills-free show. “There is so much talk on television now with the cable companies–there’s a certain amount of screaming, there’s a certain amount of posturing. The fact that we do it the old-fashioned way … has sort of set us apart,” he said.

Still, Mr. Schieffer isn’t so old-fashioned that he’s shying away from the increasingly creepy Chandra Levy case. “I think it’s a story,” he said. Of Congressman Gary Condit, he said: “Whoever heard of a member of Congress who had a constituent in trouble who went into hiding? Normally, a Congressman will walk barefoot over broken beer bottles to get to a microphone …. To me, his behavior is peculiar.”

This morning, you walk barefoot over last night’s Chinese-food containers and several unidentified house guests to turn on Face the Nation . [WCBS, 2, 10:30 a.m.]

Monday, July 16

Oo la Loft! Fresh from a rosé-and-fougasse-filled sojourn in her motherland, NYTV’s Gallic television correspondent, Elisabeth Franck, weighs in on the finale of Loft Story, the Jerry Lewis of reality-television shows:

“The final contestants of the astoundingly popular show have peacefully finished their 70-day detention in a loft north of Paris–this despite concern from politicians and philosophers that the show constituted a ‘threat to the human person’ and a siege by angry marchers hoping to liberate Les Lofteurs.

“The winners, a bland sociology student named Christophe and a blond go-go dancer known as Loana, will soon be on view again when they move into a luxurious, camera-filled St. Tropez villa for a 45-day run. Loana and Christophe should make for good TV, since Christophe has another Loft girlfriend waiting for him at home, and Loana became the show’s most popular figure when she initiated a younger male contestant in the joy of sexe in the Loft’s pool. Loana’s fame was also bolstered by a recent magazine exposé about her illegitimate daughter, whom she gave up for custody to the state–and might win back thanks to her show earnings and her new modeling contract. France, after all, loves a good misérable .”

Thanks, Elisabeth. If the French truly love misérables , wait until they get a load of Becker ! [WCBS, 2, 9:30 p.m.]

Tuesday, July 17

Spy TV. On tonight’s episode, the NBC brass gets together and tell Brian Williams the anchor desk is his … and then: “You’re on Spy TV ! Hahahahaha!” [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]