One Thursday in July, CNN’s Rick Sanchez received an e-mail from network president Jonathan Klein.
“I need a hard-throwing righty out of the bullpen,” to fill in for Paula Zahn as anchor for a week in the crucial 8 p.m. weekday time slot, Mr. Klein wrote, according to Mr. Sanchez. “Can you be in New York by Monday?”
It’s less than a thousand miles from Atlanta to New York, but the distance between his gig as a weekend daytime anchor for CNN, and the new show must have felt much greater*. This was the big leagues: If only for a week, the energetic, 49-year-old Cuban immigrant would go head-to-head against Fox’s fed-up conservative, Bill O’Reilly, and MSNBC’s liberal sophisticate, Keith Olbermann.
He threw a few suits in a bag, jumped on a plane and covered for Ms. Zahn for a week. Things went well. So well, in fact, that the following week, after CNN announced Ms. Zahn was leaving the network, Mr. Klein asked: “Can you do another week?”
That week, too, went well.
“So then he says, ‘Can you do a month?’” Mr. Sanchez remembered, in an interview at his new office in the Time Warner Center. Next, he remembered, it was, “Can you go through Labor Day?” Then: “Can you go through November?” And now, said Mr. Sanchez, “We’re going through February,” when the network’s new star hire, Campbell Brown, will step into the slot.
And so, in the strangely ad hoc way that most things in this business seem to happen, he’s getting the biggest audition of his career.
His past couple of months as the host of Out in the Open, the opinionated 8 p.m. news-and-debate program he leads until Ms. Brown arrives, has gotten him lots of attention. Some cable-news insiders think Mr. Sanchez has his eye on the 7 p.m. time slot*. At present, CNN’s prime-time lineup is a little screwy: Mr. Blitzer is on the air from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., then comes Lou Dobbs’ Lou Dobbs Tonight from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then Mr. Blitzer—again—from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. How much better to start a new franchise in that hour!
Mr. Sanchez won’t be drawn out on his ambitions at CNN.
“For me it’s just a wonderful opportunity to be able to showcase what we can do,” he said, carefully. “And to show that there is a huge audience out there that probably needs to be spoken to as well.”
CNN knows that well enough. During Ms. Zahn’s tenure, the network had fallen into a distant third place among cable news networks in the 8 p.m. time slot, behind Fox and MSNBC.
Mr. Sanchez’s six month tryout pins the young buck with a straight-shooting style and a reputation for daredevil reporting up against the O’Reilly’s and Olbermann’s of the world. And it’s an opportunity to test out a new voice for the network that just might have something going for it.
Mr. Sanchez’s parents fled Cuba for South Florida when he was 2, and it was in Miami that he got his start, hosting a Spanish-language radio show while making his name as an English-language anchor for the city’s Fox affiliate, WSVN.
Lately he’s been aggressive about staking out his territory with the other guys. Out in the Open has developed its own cause—the struggles of Hispanic immigrants—that fits well with his own story, and pushes a political hot button.
“We really want to fight for the little guy,” Mr. Sanchez said, an uncharacteristically somber look flashing, for the moment, over his boyish, unlined face. “And, in this case, I think, the littlest of guys in this country right now is the Mexican immigrant.”
Of course, the direction makes strategic sense for CNN, especially as it continues to figure out how to counter conservative icon Mr. O’Reilly. As Mr. Sanchez himself puts it: “For a long time, cable news has said either, ‘We’ll just stay right here in the middle and not say a whole lot,’ or, ‘we’ll go way over to the right and say a lot.’ But there’s a whole other audience out there … America really is a melting pot.”
“I know it sounds a little hackneyed,” he said, “but defending the little guy is hard these days, and it’s not something that anybody wants to do, and I do it because—not just because I’m a minority—but because I frankly feel what it’s like to be these people who are really downtrodden right now, you know, to be a Mexican immigrant. Because I know what it’s like to be poor.”
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bill!
And Mr. Sanchez has no fear of confronting his rivals directly.
On his Sept. 19 show, Mr. O’Reilly told viewers: “I couldn’t get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia’s restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it’s run by blacks.” Later, during a discussion with a correspondent, he added, “There wasn’t one person in Sylvia’s who was screaming, ‘M-F’er, I want more iced tea.”