Monday, May 19, 2008


Swiss News, January/Febuary 2002

With its new crew of young female anchors, CNN has shed ita rather no nonsense image. But these talking heads are much more than just pretty faces.

On September 11 thousands of people all over Switzerland raced to their television sets. Most of them who understand English tuned in to CNN International. Where else would you turn for a minute-by-minute chronicle of the drama unfolding in New York and Washington and, soon thereafter, in Afghanistan?

Those who hadn't viewed the network for a while--as many of us hadn't, given the relatively quiet state of the globe before 9/11-may have noticed a not-so-subtle change. The network's anchor desk is decked out with an array of fresh faces, and not just any faces. They're young, attractive, mostly female, and recruited from every corner of the globe.

"These days CNN looks, if you'll pardon the expression, like an International Babes Calendar," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at the Newhouse School for Public Communications, Syracuse University, U.S.A. "But these women they've found are not just good-looking--they are also really good journalists, well deserving of the anchor rule."

Take Zain Verjee, an Atlanta-based anchor recruited from Nairobi a year ago. She's all of 27 years old, has raven black hair, huge soulful eyes, and a 1000. Watt smile. But that's not all. "Verjee is smart, she's interesting, and she's a lively interviewer. I would rather listen to what she has to say than to Dan Rather any day-and not because she has a pretty face," says Thompson, who was interviewed by Verjee about the Bin Laden tapes in December.

Then there's Tumi Makgabo, a stunning South African (also just this side of 27) who also joined the Atlanta team in 2000. Her satiny complexion and heart-melting delivery of late-breaking news prompts a suitor a day, more or less, to propose marriage to her by e-mail. (They're out of luck. Makgabo is already married and has three children.) But Makgabo is also a tough-minded reporter who can switch gears in a heart. beat when a new story breaks in the middle of her watch, as it did on more than one occasion this fall during the Afghanistan crisis.

Corporate strategy

The selection of Verjee and Makgabo to hold the anchor desk at the CNN Center in Atlanta and other stunners like Hala Gorani and Juanita Phillips for the London bureau are part of an overall strategy. "We want to develop the CNN brand as a sharp, focussed, sassy news service. And we want our anchors to be people who are engaged and engaging. People you want to spend time with. And so we have been looking for people with energy, who have a certain crackle," says CNN senior vice president Tony Maddox, who oversees the version of CNN viewed in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Why, suddenly, all the anchors with movie-star good looks? "Lets get real, We are talking about the TV business. It's not a revelation that we need good looking people. But we don't just offer good looks--these are men and women with great skills," Maddox says.

The cultural and racial rainbow greeting viewers these days also is no accident. "This is an international network, and we want it to feel like one. We are malting an effort to get a mix," Maddox adds.

A single word explains why CNN felt obliged to trade it's once-crusty image as a hard-nosed team devoted to the news, and nothing but the news, for a sleeker more polished look: competition.

For a number of years CNN had the international 24-hour news platform to itself. The network first emerged as a major player a decade ago during the Gulf War. In those days, CNN ostensibly made no effort to showcase attractive people. Instead it featured reporters with iron clad news credentials but looks that were nothing to write home about--people like Wolf Blitzer and Bernie Shaw. "They didn't have to worry about personality--they were alone Out there," says Thompson.

But in the mid-nineties, MSNBC came along with a more user-friendly format, like the running headlines now ubiquitous on 24-hour news networks, and offering regular features about celebrities. "A lot of it was pretty cheesy, but it started to bring in viewers," comments Thompson.

Then Fox arrived on the scene with its own 24-hour network. Now CNN was sharing the 24-hour news slot with two players, both of which played hard bail. Both brought in celebrity journalists. At MSNBC there was the blond and poised Jane Pauley--former host of the Today Show, the most popular early morning news feature show in the U.S. Fox had former sensationalist talk-show host Geraldo Rivera--the butt of many jokes but nonetheless a draw.

"The top execs at CNN recognised they had to make a move," says Thompson. "They weren't about go give up their franchise as the world's most serious international news network and go the route of entertainment. Instead, they offered viewers something nice to look at."

The strategy seems to be working. During the Gulf War, CNN had a viewership of 7 million in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the Middle East. last year it was up to 150 million. CNN International has the highest viewership, and has the largest online news audience in Europe.

Surveys by CNN of its own audience have found that viewers typically are affluent, aged 30 to 49 (average age 43), educated, fluent in English, business decision-makers, and frequent travellers. In the network's infancy as an international medium, it primarily drew an audience of business travellers, most of them Americans, who usually caught the news in hotel rooms. Today, 99 percent of CNN's viewers live in the country where they watch the network. The vast majority are male. "This demographic explains, of course, why the network has recruited so many young, attractive female journalists in recent times," says Thompson.

CNN today also strives to avoid the feel of an American medium, even though its mother company is based in Atlanta. When you watch CNN from Switzerland, it's not easy to tell where the person on the screen is sitting-London or Atlanta. "That's a look we strive for. When I am sitting at the anchor desk in Atlanta, I feel like I could be anywhere. And I think that's how the network appears to others. CNN creates a cosmopolitan feeling," says Makgabo. "We don't want people to think of CNN as American. We are an international network that happens to be in U.S.," agrees Verjee.

A challenging pitch

Like all other mass media, news networks always have their audience in mind. What will keep them tuned in? That's not so difficult to fathom when you are pitching to a single region or even a single country. But deciding how to formulate the news to people scattered over four continents is another matter. CNN has as its mission to figure out, day by day, which stories seem most important to people all over the world. And now the network has made it a priority to serve up those stories as attractively as possible. For Thompson, the CNN shift serves as proof that market forces and pragmatic decisions don't end necessarily in disaster. "You have to admire them," says Thompson. "You can find lots of beautiful broadcasters and a fair number of competent broadcasters. But to find both? That's not easy."

Zain Verjee

A native of Nairobi who completed her university education in Canada, Verjee came to CNN in 2000 from Kenyan Television Network (KTN). Within a year of her arrival in Atlanta she rose to the position of international anchor and presenter of the "Q&A" show. Verjee already has to her credit a number of landmark interviews with world figures, including the European Union Security Chief Javier Solana, the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and David Trimble, the First Minister of Northern Ireland. Her style is to dribble around her interviewees with her dimply charm, then slam dunk her tough questions. Especially memorable was her chat last fall with the President of Sri Lanka Chankdrika Kumaratunga, whose political fortunes have plunged in the face of her country's economic crisis and the severe military reverses suffered by her army against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. At one point, Verjee suddenly shifted direction away from matters Sri Lankan and asked, "Looking back, is there anything yon would change about your life?"' Kumaratunga looked non-plussed, and stumbled over her reply. "I got the sense she thought the interview with me would be a breeze." Says Verjee. Did it occur to Verjee beforehand that she might catch Kumarantunga off guard with her own youthful charm? "One always uses the things one has to one's advantage," she admits.

Tumi Makgabo

Makgabo, who grew up in Pretoria, was 20 when South Africa had the first Free elections in which non-whites could vote. And of course, like other Black South Africans, she had to take on her education more or less single handedly. The only university education available to her was correspondence school. She fell into journalism by chance when she went to work on a local TV station in Johannesburg because she needed a job to support her law studies. One day they asked her to fill in at the anchor desk when someone was away. Before long she was anchoring the channel's prime time evening news. CNN became interested when recruiters, looking for talent in Africa, saw one of her tapes. Makgabo finds it unnerving to think of the numbers of people to whom she broadcasts. "I try imagine I am talking to my husband and kids and friends." Now she sits at the international anchor desk in Atlanta and hosts a weekly news programme about Africa.

Juanita Phillips

Phillips, a native of Australia, anchors World News Europe, CNN's European focused evening news show and presents Inside Europe, CNN's weekly European economic, social and cultural show. Prior to this Phillips presented CNN's European breakfast news programme CNN This Morning for two years. Phillips started her journalism career at the Courier-Mail newspaper in Queensland, where she was a well-known writer and columnist, before moving to television for Sky News Australia. She came to London in 1997 to try her hand at international journalism and joined CNN in 1998. Since then the also has served as an international correspondent, covering breaking stories like the Kosovo War, the allied bombing campaign against Iraq, the Turkish earthquake and the fall of Milosevic. Young, attractive anchors, she says, are hired by CNN only when they show they can do the job. "CNN is tough. You have to know international affairs, and you have to be a solid interviewer. Anyone who is hired to work here has to work hard and do lots of homework."

Hala Gorani

Born in the U.S., Gorani spent her early years between France and Switzerland, eventually landing in college hack in the States. She first worked as a journalist in Paris before moving to London to report for Bloomberg TV and later CNN. You'd never know French is her primary language to hear her crisp American English-but the chic cut of her blazers and jewellry choices have the Paris touch. She is best known to Swiss viewers as the anchor of the World Business Today programme. "What we try to do on that show is tell people, quickly and efficiently, what happened during the day in the business world, We don't try to compete with the 24 hour-a-day business networks. Instead, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who wants all the important business news in a half hour," Gorani explains. Gorani doesn't just read the news--she routinely invites experts from the business banking, and investment communities to shed light on a breaking story. Europe is the strongest focus of the programme. And of course, this fall, Switzerland was often a prominent feature-not for the happiest of reasons. "Swissair, in particular, was a very big story for us."

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