In Depth: Jim Walton Bungles Executive Shakeup or Slick PR Move?
I touched on this briefly earlier this morning but it really needs a bigger fleshing out. The major question everyone should be asking in the wake of today’s CNN executive shakeup isn’t “How’d it happen?” nor “What’s the future hold?” nor “What other changes are coming?” and certainly isn’t “What’s Klein’s legacy?”. No, the most important question which only a few people have looked at so far is this: Why now?
Why fire Klein now? This is the real head scratcher. This is what makes the whole executive shakeup nonsensical for me.
Put it in these terms: Klein had mostly completed implementing another makeover to primetime and early evening. John King, USA is still young. Parker Spitzer is set to debut next month. Piers Morgan will debut in a few months. Sure there’s an open question about future talent staffing on American Morning, which Klein was probably already looking at but hadn’t gotten around to working on, but the biggest focus – the one where everyone is looking at – has been primetime. 2/3 of CNN primetime just got rebooted and the lead-in to primetime (King’s show) is new. Firing Klein at this point makes no sense because you fire the man but you’re forced to live with his legacy. You don’t fire people so that you can live with their legacy. You fire people because you don’t want to live with their legacy.
This is the Catch-22 that Jim Walton has now put CNN and Ken Jautz in. Primetime cannot be touched save for Anderson Cooper’s show and that’s not going to happen because that’s the only consistency CNN has going for it in prime right now; not for at least a year. Jautz can’t possibly cancel Parker Spitzer right out of the gate – well he can but it’s unlikely he would – because it makes CNN look more feckless. The stakes are even higher for Piers Morgan since Larry King basically got shoved under the bus to make way for him. That means for the near and mid term CNN is stuck with Parker – Spitzer and for a longer term with Morgan. And since Anderson Cooper is the only identifiable prime time brand CNN has right now, CNN can’t afford to do anything with him especially with two new shows debuting. John King, USA is on less sturdy ground because it’s an older show but here too I think CNN will resist making a wholesale change.
So, if CNN is not going to be making any near or mid term changes to primetime as I believe, then firing Klein seems pointless at worst or a CYA buy-CNN-more-time superficial maneuver because the man behind the shows you’re about to launch is gone but the shows will still go on. Unless Walton and Jautz have something truly radical planned, like un-launching Parker-Spitzer for example or dropping Cooper, Jautz will be boxed in during primetime for at least a year. As I said you fire someone when you want to make a change. But it appears that there is little that will change in the next year because of all these new shows unless CNN starts taking on the personality of MSNBC from 1998-2004.
Not that I’m going to defend Klein on primetime or some of his anchor choices over the years. I’ve said to many people that I thought Klein seemed to be hell bent on staffing his anchor desk with Grade A reporters who turned out to be Grade B anchors. And after pulling CNN back from the more chaotic period that it was internally in when he arrived Klein seemed, like David Bohrman, at times too obsessed with technology and big productions. And his primetime programming choices left something to be desired a lot of the time. But if you’re going to fire the guy, you want to give the next guy the leeway to change things. But by choosing to fire Klein now, Walton hasn’t done that. He can’t do that. Not now. It’s too late.
As I wrote at the top, the key question is “Why was Klein fired now?” If the answer was to change course then this was the most pointless time to do it and Walton has totally bungled the changeover. If Walton wanted Klein out in order to change course he should have done it six months ago, or more, before CNN cemented its new primetime lineup. By firing Klein now, he sticks Jautz with Klein’s new lineup for probably a year at least. Great if the numbers rebound. But if they don’t…or worse, erode further…
If Klein was fired purely as a PR ploy, it may work. Throw the press and the critics, who have been circling CNN’s boat like sharks from the movie Jaws for well over a year, some red meat and hope they’ll go away for a while. Make Klein the scapegoat without acknowledging that you’re basically going to be implementing Klein’s vision in primetime for another year. Jautz’s hire automatically gives CNN some breathing room and the excuse factor (“Hey I just got here, I need time to turn this around”). In that respect Klein’s firing could be viewed as a delaying tactic for lack of a better option and Klein was indeed correct when he said he got shot today. It would be considered part and parcel for CNN’s circular firing squad.