While there was constant speculation that Jon Klein's days as president of CNN's U.S. operation were numbered, the executive himself was caught off-guard by his dismissal.
In an interview, Klein revealed that he had recently renewed his contract with CNN and has "quite a bit of time left" on his deal. Furthermore, just last April his boss -- CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton -- said he wasn't worried about CNN's poor ratings.
"It's not as dire as maybe some people say," Walton said, adding that while he wasn't satisfied with the performance, he also wasn't "concerned." At that time, CNN had seen its prime-time ratings drop by more than 41% from a year ago.
That doesn't sound like someone getting ready to make a big executive change. On Friday, Walton said CNN's performance was the reason for replacing Klein with HLN chief Ken Jautz.
"We're not satisfied with the low ratings," Walton told reporters on a conference call, but did not elaborate on what specifically had changed from a few months ago to lead him to do make the move to replace Klein.
Klein had been with CNN for almost seven years and Walton was very patient and supportive of him, leading some in the industry to wonder whether the decision to make a change came from CNN parents Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner Inc.
A spokeswoman for Phil Kent, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, denied that Kent pressured Walton to get rid of Klein and offered a statement from Kent issued to Company Town praising the restructuring of CNN. Kent said -- in very corporate speak -- that he is "in full support of his [Walton's] newly announced organizational structure and leadership team." A person close to Time Warner Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes said the change came from within CNN.
Klein, who had been working on putting the finishing touches on a new prime-time lineup, said, "I don't really understand the timing." Noting that he was being shoved out before his new shows had premiered, Klein said he feels like a baseball manager who is "fired right before the playoffs."
While Klein wouldn't be the first person to be let go after signing a relatively new deal, in his case given all the talk about his long-term future at the network, it seems unusual that he would be given an extension and continued support from his boss only to be dropped a few months later.
The two big moves Klein made in the last few months were sealing a deal for Piers Morgan to succeed Larry King in the 9 p.m. hour and hiring Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced former New York governor, to co-host a political chat show.
Piers, the British TV personality who moonlights in the U.S. as a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent," will succeed King in January. Spitzer, who resigned as governor in the wake of a sex scandal, is being teamed with Kathleen Parker, a conservative columnist, for a political talk show starting next month.
Now it will be up to Jautz to make those moves pay off. A CNN veteran who has had stints working overseas for the company and who also ran the now-defunct business channel CNNfn, is credited with revitalizing HLN, which was formerly known as CNN Headline News.
But while Jautz has boosted ratings at HLN, his methods -- which included giving shows to fire-cracker lawyer Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck (who has since left for Fox News) -- have some wondering if CNN might soon have a more tabloid and over-the-top approach to programming.
In an interview, Jautz said CNN will “stick to its nonpartisan programming philosophy,” but he was quick to add that the network needs a shot of adrenaline.
“We have to be more exciting … in order to engage the prime-time audience you need to provide them something more,” he said. That means, he said, that CNN will start to have more opinion trickling into its content, but the network will do it in an “inclusive manner.”
Replacing Jautz at HLN will be Scot Safon, who had served as chief marketing officer of CNN Worldwide. While not a journalist by trade, Walton said Safon is a "strategic thinker" who has been "involved in and contributed to all the big decisions that have been made here over the last few years."
While Fox News doesn't mind tweaking its rivals about how they are performing, Roger Ailes, the chairman of the top-rated news channel, praised Klein.
“We’ve enjoyed competing with CNN during his tenure and I’m confident he’ll be an asset to any news organization he joins in the future," Ailes said, adding that he looks forward "to continuing our personal dialogue.”
-- Joe Flint
Photo: Jon Klein. Credit: Jennifer S. Altman / For the Times