I've been meaning to say goodbye to Paula Zahn and hello to Campbell Brown, the players starring in among the more fascinating maneuvers being conducted by CNN in the battle for supremacy in the eight o'clock prime time cable network news wars.
Zahn, who went out the door suddenly on Aug. 2, is a classic example of good, old-fashioned American stick-to-it-ivism.
She had failed in the morning at CBS, not waking up America as co-host of "CBS This Morning" (1996-9). She was anchor number 214 on "CBS This Morning Problems with Paula Zahn and Harry Smith."
She failed anchoring the nightly news program "The Fox Report" on FNC (1999-2001).
Then she came to CNN and failed in the morning with "American Morning." It was not like she was getting beat by Katie Couric, but by Steve Doocy and his friends at "Fox & Friends."
So CNN rewarded Paula by giving her a promotion to anchor its flagship eight o'clock prime time show, which eventually became "Paula Zahn NOW." With a new costly set, graphics and news music you could dance to, it replaced that other CNN blockbuster, "The Connie Chung Show." As they say in the Garment Center, a few blocks south from her high-rent, luxury storefront studio at the Time & Life Building on Sixth Ave. in Manhattan, there was a pattern here.
CNN was following the journalism axiom: if at first you don't fail, try, try again.
It was hard to imagine anyone, other than Zahn's stepmother in Ohio, saying at the bowling alley, "Come on, Henrietta, we have to get home. Paula's got a new set and time period. "
Paula had a proven track record of not drawing ratings. On the other hand, she was a lot prettier than Aaron Brown, who had been introduced the year before Paula Zahn arrived from Fox as the prime time face of CNN.
Zahn had a distinctive presence. She read the TelePrompTer for a show that was in Atlanta, while she was in New York, with that deer-in-the-headlight look. Asking questions in interviews, she often seemed to be saying, "I can't believe I'm actually asking these questions. I wish I knew what they mean? That was the Paula Z-z-z-z-ahn Ztyle that is already being missed.
It was a trifecta for Zahn as she went out the revolving door three months before her contract ended. I guess they ran out of time periods to try her out in Zahn's zig zag career.
All of this was enough to wipe that smile off her face. Impossible, Zahn scholars say. She is one of those people who have a permanent smile, even when reporting disasters.
Campbell Brown now has the chance to fail as the new face of CNN prime time.
The winner of the Zahn with the Wind contest, Campbell was a bench player at NBC News, most recently in the morning. Being passed over in the talent search for the new Katie Couric was not a vote of confidence. The equivalent of a third string kicker in Jeff Zucker's mind, suddenly she's the star quarterback at CNN.
We are all anxious to see whether her show can be become even more exciting a presence on the news than CNN's production of "Zahn Lake." But not so fast.
Campbell Brown won't be able to go on the air until November when her contract (with the exit agreement clause) ends. She will be at the desk just long enough to forget her during maternity leave. The baby is due in December.
All of which means CNN will have no regular anchor for three months, followed by a substitute anchor sitting in for their new star for an unpredictable time.
Yet another example of the shrewd minds, led by Jonathan Klein, running CNN into the ground these days at eight o'clock and elsewhere.
Amazingly, thanks to its Z-z-z-hanian strategy, CNN has already fallen behind MSNBC by 20% in the eight o'clock ratings. Nobody falls behind MSNBC at any hour! So Campbell Brown has her work cut out for whenever she returns from maternity leave, facing not only the usual "The O'Reilly Factor" juggernaut on Fox, but by the "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" panzer attack.
Behind the scenes in this anchor interruptus saga, Campbell Brown should be aware of the killing fields at CNN, the usual war between Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper to become the official face of CNN. "The Situation Room" is the kudzu of CNN, but the 360 Cooper is the favorite in the war. It's the old age vs. beauty debate.
All, or none, of this would have been possible if the brainiacs at CNN hadn't been so smart enough not to dump the other Brown, Aaron, from its flagship show to make room for Paula and Anderson
Catching some Z-z-z-zzzz's while watching Paula in the past years as CNN's ratings went south, I kept wondering what had been wrong with the anchor of "NewsNight with Aaron Brown." Suddenly in November 2005, it was "NewsNight with Anderson Cooper and Brown. " Sometimes he was still on. He was a victim of the glitzkreig staged by Jamie Kellner and Walter Isaacson to make CNN more glitzy and entertaining and fun.
Aaron was one of those love or hate guys. Some hated him because he wore glasses. Others because they thought he was a liberal. I don't know what his politics were, but the way people thought in those dark days if you weren't an outspoken conservative, everybody assumed you were a liberal.
There were those who say Aaron was too quirky and odd to be a star anchor. But I really liked Aaron at night. He was literate, intelligent, honest, not afraid to react to news, show pain, fear, even confusion in stories he was covering. He had a news anchor presence, unlike, say, Brian Williams at MSNBC. And he had an avuncular quality. He could have been the next Walter Cronkite.
If CNN had the courage of its lack of convictions and stuck with Aaron, they wouldn't be in this pickle. We are now in a period where hard news guys are coming back in fashion. Look at the success of Charlie Gibson at ABC.
I hope that Aaron Brown will be using his experiences at CNN as the syllabus of the course he is teaching in January as the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University at Tempe.
Meanwhile, we haven't seen the last of Paula Zahn. Her career has been like the TV news version of "Perils of Pauline." Just when she is about to get run over by the train in this TV news pot boiler serial, a heroic savior always seems to swoop in and whisk her away to another dream job. Her agent, Richie Liebner, never takes no for an answer.