In January 2006, Ken Jautz gave Glenn Beck, then a syndicated radio host and ex-Top 40 deejay, a 7 p.m. show on Headline News’ revamped primetime block, "Headline Prime."
Plucking the unknown out of radio obscurity and installing him as the lead-in to Nancy Grace unleashed Beck on the television world, launching his rocketship ride to cable news superstardom.
It also defined Jautz's tenure as the head of HLN -- and may well be a central reason Jautz was picked on Friday to run CNN.
Who is Ken Jautz, and where is he likely to take the CNN brand?
Credited with "reinventing" CNN’s sister network, Jautz not only found Beck (Jautz once described Beck's style as "self-deprecating, cordial" and "not confrontational." If you say so, Ken!), he also created a calvacade of opinionated talk show stars.
He made Nancy Grace. He discovered Jane Velez-Mitchell. He created the Joy Behar show.
At HLN, Jautz (pictured above, far right, in 2007 with Beck and Grace) pushed a livelier, flashier -- and, yes, trashier -- sort of programming than CNN executives were used to. The question now is, of course, will CNN take a turn to the opinionated head-talkers Jautz's predecessor, Jon Klein, largely resisted?
According to a network insider, Jautz has repeatedly told people in the newsroom that he isn't into long-form reporting or in-depth investigations. “I do not believe that ‘facts-only’ programming will work [in primetime],” Jautz told TheWrap in an interview on Friday. “Viewers, if they’re looking for just the news, they can get that anywhere now. The news that happened that day, they probably know already. They want context, perspective and opinion.”
This has some of Klein’s “quality journalism” disciples inside the newsroom deeply worried. In a meeting with the CNN staff on Friday, Jautz was asked, given the success of ideologically-tilted programming on Fox and MSNBC, if CNN is headed in that direction.
He didn’t answer.
The person that did was Scott Safon, CNN's chief marketing officer, who is taking over for Jautz at HLN.
According to one person at the meeting, Safon said Friday that CNN has a seven-month plan in place to explore what viewers want to see. He said he does not think their answer will be “more opinion,” he said. Instead, he thinks they'll want “authenticity.” Safon and Robin Garfield, SVP of CNN research, have charted a course of "getting inside viewers heads."
"They don't want us to be Fox or MSNBC," Safon said. The answer won't be right or left, he told the staff. "It will be more authenticity, and more passion."
If that sounds like quasi-marketing-speak, it’s because that’s what it is. CNN executives can spin Safon's promotion however they want, journalistically, but he’s a marketing guy, suddenly in charge of a cable network.
As for Jautz, staffers can understand his hiring a bit more. Prior to HLN, Jautz was the EVP of CNNfn, the business news network, and CNN Money. Even before Friday, Jautz -- as EVP of CNN/Worldwide -- outranked Klein in the CNN hierarchy.
And Jautz elevated HLN from fifth place in the ratings to fourth and even third (often knocking CNN to fourth in the cable news battle for primetime viewers). He oversaw the change from Headline News to HLN in 2008, eschewing news for ratings-friendly tabloid programming, and made it a financial success -- no small feat, given that he did it mostly during a recession.
"It stands to reason you fire the guy with bad ratings, and promote the guy with good ratings,” said one staffer.
CNN’s ratings plummeted the last few years under Klein -- particularly in primetime. Larry King lost more than 40 percent of his total viewers during the first half of 2010. CNN’s total primetime viewer average (594,000) plummeted 31 percent during the second quarter, 28 percent in the key 25-to-54-year-old demographic. Anderson Cooper’s ratings fell 28 percent in total viewers and 25 percent in the demo during that time.
But ratings for HLN, which had been flat for nearly a decade, improved dramatically under Jautz’s watch. In 2009, HLN was the only cable news network to gain market share other than Fox News.
And the success has continued this year. “The Joy Behar Show,” for example, had biggest bump of any primetime show among total viewers (up 39 percent) during the second quarter. During that period, HLN was parked in fourth in primetime in both average total viewers (487,000) and 25-to-54-year-olds (158,000), but not far behind third place CNN. On Friday, CNN Worldwide president Jim Walton downplayed the network’s slumping primetime ratings as a catalyst, but conceded that "the ratings clearly need to get better."
But at what cost?
“I think that CNN needs to be as lively and engaging and as informative as it is known for its reporting,” Jautz said on Friday. “When breaking news happens, no one is able to cover an event like we do. But overall, our programming, particularly in primetime, is not as lively or engaging as it should be.” In August, CNN had its worst month in primetime in total viewers since May 2000.
“The one thing about Jautz is, he is liked by just about everyone,” said TVNewser editor Chris Ariens. “He has the respect of the room, and it's a pretty big room stretching from Atlanta, to D.C., to New York. He wants to make CNN primetime more engaging, compelling and fun. But his hands are tied when it comes to creating more compelling or engaging or even fun shows that don't have a political bent to them. If he can find the next Glenn Beck, an apolitical Glenn Beck, he might be on to something.”