Campbell Brown quietly begins her tenure at CNN

March 31, 2008 6:08:07 PM PDT
There are entrances, and there are ENTRANCES.

Campbell Brown has made a lower-caps bow at CNN, anchoring the week-night series "Election Center" for the past few weeks.

When she left NBC last summer, where she was host of "Weekend Today" and Brian Williams' primary sub on "Nightly News," Brown said she was taking time offscreen to have a baby and develop a format for the new 8 p.m. show she would anchor on CNN.

The first mission was accomplished (Eli, born Dec. 18), but events conspired to change the second. CNN cooked up "Election Center" in January to capitalize on the intense political interest and serve as a spaceholder for Brown. Instead, when she was ready to come back, Brown simply moved into the anchor chair at the all-politics program.

It's the ultimate soft launch, and saved Brown from hours of mind-numbing meetings.

"The things that go into putting a new show together - the staff, the graphics, whatever else - that's not my focus," she told The Associated Press. "That's not the sort of stuff that interested me anyway. What interested me was the story, and this landed in our laps. I couldn't have been happier."

The timing also gives Brown the chance to show her talents at a high-water mark for a network where interest ebbs and flows depending on the news.

CNN beat industry leader Fox News Channel among the advertiser-friendly age demographic of 25-to-54 in February for the first time in six years (Fox still led among all viewers), according to Nielsen Media Research.

Riding the wave of coverage for primary nights and debates, CNN has averaged 1.35 million viewers this year through March 21 in the 8 p.m. time slot. Last year's figure was 579,000. CNN's average this year is still dwarfed by cable news king Bill O'Reilly (2.67 million), but the two networks are closer in the youthful demographic.

CNN bet on the idea that viewers are losing interest in partisan shoutfests, said Jon Klein, CNN U.S. president. With many Fox viewers leaning right and MSNBC increasingly appealing to the left, CNN wants to play to the center.

While usually a wise strategy in politics, that's against the grain on television and radio, where audiences gravitate toward strong opinions.

"There's an enormous opportunity in appealing to the vast majority of viewers who want reliable information, want to be exposed to different points of view, and then make up their own minds," Klein countered. "They don't want to be preached to, they don't want to be ranted at. They just want the facts presented to them, and that plays to the strength of CNN."

Brown said she won't shy away from opinionated analysis on her show but won't be offering it herself. That's counterprogramming in itself, since she's competing against two men (O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann) who are reliably sure of their own opinions.

The 39-year-old Brown was well-regarded at NBC, but was passed over as Katie Couric's replacement on "Today" for Meredith Vieira. She enjoyed her job, but was locked into a schedule working every weekend and most holidays.

"She's a political reporter, and that's one thing there's precious little of in prime-time television," Klein said.

"There's a lot of talk, but there are very few people who have the insight that she does, and the experience."

Brown figured there were only so many "organize your closet" segments she could do on "Weekend Today" and remain interested.

"The most fun I ever had was on the campaign trail and covering the White House," said Brown, who followed President Bush's 2000 campaign and began at the White House after he was elected. "I knew that in my bones and I know that's who I am and I needed to find a way to express that more than I was able to express that at NBC."

She also had some concerns about that network's commitment to news coverage compared to CNN, noting a number of producers had left "Today" and hadn't been replaced.

Indeed, the number of producers - who do much of the off-air reporting and organizing of television news programs - declined by a startling 24 percent at ABC, CBS and NBC within the past year, according to a report released two weeks ago by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

One problem doing a show called "Election Center" is you're vulnerable to lull periods, like during last week when Barack Obama went on vacation and a story about Hillary Clinton's misstatement about being exposed to sniper fire dominated the news.

By mid-November, "Election Center" becomes obsolete; Brown isn't going to avoid forever those meetings about what her show will look like. But that's two conventions and a general election campaign away.

A political junkie, she often wondered in the past if she was doing stories that people beyond her circle of friends cared about.

Not this year.

The response Brown sees in her e-mails confirms what networks and politicians have seen repeatedly over the past few months: people care, and they're really watching.

"They know what a superdelegate is, in a way you couldn't say about 2004, you couldn't say about 2000," she said. "I don't know what's behind it, but I love it. I'm going to ride this horse as long as I can. I think all of us will."