Why Campbell Brown left NBC, joined CNN
Anchor's taking over the competitive 8p.m. time slot.
By Jon Friedman
July 27, 2007
Campbell Brown laughs when she imagines the scene at her first show on CNN.
Acknowledging what had been the worst-kept secret in television news, announced this week that Brown would begin anchoring its 8 p.m. show on Nov. 1, replacing Paula Zahn. Brown had spent her career as a reporter and anchor with NBC News most recently serving as the co-anchor on “Weekend Today.”
What's more, by the time Brown crosses the border from network news to the rough-and-tumble world of cable broadcasting, she will be eight months pregnant with her first child.
“On the first day, I'll be waddling on to the set while the crew finds a chair big enough to fit me,” she joked.
I asked her if she expects to feel jitters about hosting her own show. “It's hard to be scared when you're that fat,” she shot back. “I mean, I'll be so uncomfortable in so many ways.” She turned philosophical and added: “There are so many things I'm going to be scared about at eight months.” Pointing to her belly, she noted: “It's going to be hard for television to top this.”
Opinion shows made Fox's Plus, Nancy Grace of Headline News has built a fan base by being provocative.
But the 39-year-old Brown says her program “is not going to be an opinion-oriented talk show. That's not who I am.”
So how does she see herself competing against O'Reilly and the red-meat gang?
“I can't worry about the competition,” Brown told me over breakfast Thursday in Manhattan in her lilting native Louisiana accent. “Keith Olbermann and Bill O'Reilly are two of the most talented people on television — no question. We have to do something different, and it's going to take time for us to find our footing.”
Fox and MSNBC can forget about encountering a snarling foe in Brown., who smiles often and sounds quietly confident. I suspect this will be the signature style of the new show: low-key, informal, personable.
Brown cares about making a personal connection with her audience. She announced at various times during NBC's “Weekend Today,” where she was a familiar presence as a co-anchor, that she was a) pregnant and b) leaving the show.
Nevertheless, what will make or break Brown's broadcast is her ability to differentiate herself from Paula Zahn.
CNN, too, has the task of convincing viewers that it is presenting something new, in every way. CNN is deluding itself if it thinks it can merely offer a variation on Zahn to flourish against two very determined rivals in O'Reilly and Olbermann.
Zahn's commitment to discussing race relations on TV should be applauded. Zahn built a following in her career at CBS, Fox and CNN. But the viewers, evidently, were turned off by either her serious style or the show's format.
Brown was television-news' version of the most coveted free agent on the market. With her NBC contract about to expire, the race was on to hire her.
Networks wooed Brown because she can look comfortable and sound convincing, whether she's reporting on the presidential campaign or Iraq or so-called soft news. She showed herself to be capable of anchoring any news broadcast.
Jon Klein, the U.S. president for news at CNN, told me that Brown “brings a lot of skills that are hard to find. She is really interested in and good at hard news without being ponderous on the air.”
It may be jarring for viewers when Brown takes her maternity leave so soon after beginning the CNN show. But Klein wasn't fazed. “We've got plenty of time” to establish Brown, he said.
Brown told me she was proud of her NBC career and grateful for the opportunity to work with such good journalists, beginning with her mentor, former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw.
“At NBC, I had every opportunity a network could give me,” Brown said.
Well, almost every opportunity. NBC chose to install news-veteran Meredith Vieira as the co-anchor of “Today” when Katie Couric announced last year that she would be leaving to anchor “CBS Evening News.”
Brown very much wanted to succeed Couric. “I'm a big fan of Meredith and I respected the decision,” Brown commented. “I know that this is a business. The suggestion that this is why I'm leaving NBC is ridiculous. But … I had to start to think about what I wanted to do in the next four or five years.”
For starters, there's impending motherhood. She and her husband, Dan Senor, who has appeared on Fox, are contemplating their new life. She met Senor a few years ago when she was working in Iraq and he was the senior adviser to Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
What will the happy parents name their baby? CNN's Klein helpfully suggested “Jonathan” (a name I heartily endorse). Brown laughed. The more relevant question is will their child prefer to look at her on CNN or at Dan on Fox.
“The baby has to choose between watching Mommy and Daddy,” she nodded in a mock-serious tone. “They tell me that little boys grow up worshiping their mothers. So I'm certain he'll be a CNN viewer.”
Case closed. CNN is counting on Brown's optimism to shake up the 8 o'clock hour.
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