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Did CNN Hang Paula Zahn Out to Dry?

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Check out the video I posted today — it is some behind the scenes video I shot on my handycam when we were in Iowa interviewing three of Governor Romney's sons. You have not seen it before and yes, it is easy to tell a professional photographer did not shoot it. (I do think I am getting better at the handycam but, alas, there is a lot further I need to go before I give up my "day job" — which happens to be at night.) The point of the video is just to give you a bit (small bit) of something you have not seen... even how we set up a set in a field in Iowa to do the interview. I shot video in Minneapolis on Thursday and hope to post that for you tomorrow or later in the week.

Click here to watch Greta's video blog

If all goes as expected, our show will air from New York City tonight. I have some unfinished business in NYC that I started last week, but never finished. I will thus jump a train to NYC in an hour or two. If you recall, I was supposed to be in NYC on Thursday night but went to Minneapolis — unexpectedly — Thursday morning and thus had to cancel some things Thursday that I am now going back to do. My husband always asks me why I take so much in my suitcase when I go on short trips... especially to New York where we have an apartment. Well, as you can see from the foregoing and from reading the blog — our trips are always unpredictable. When I set out for New York on Tuesday I never expected I would be in Minnesota on Thursday.

Because we were steeped in breaking news Wednesday and Thursday night on the show and even in the blog, I did not get to say anything about Paula Zahn signing off at CNN. I feel bad she is gone — it appears women don't last a long in prime time cable news. I guess I am lucky, I did not plan to be in television when I first appeared about 1991 (I was content to practice law and teach as an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law), but I have had surprising shelf life in a rather fickle business for women. I would like to see more women in prime time and thus feel regret that Paula has signed off. I am happy to hear that another woman will taking over the slot — Campbell Brown — and I welcome her to this small club of women in prime time.

I have only met Paula Zahn in passing on one or two occasions. She went to CNN in September 2001 (assigned to the New York bureau) and I left CNN in December 2001 (jumping ship to FOX.) We were part of a CNN group photo shoot some time in the fall of 2001 in New York and that was when I met her. I recall she arrived late for the shoot and I had to leave early — so we simply had a quick introduction.

People have often asked me if Paula and I were part of a FOX/CNN trade, since she went from FOX to CNN and I went from CNN to FOX at about the same time. The answer is no.

What you may not recall is that before I left CNN, the 8 p.m. ET timeslot, now vacated by Paula, was mine for a short time. Connie Chung also had it for a while, but when she could not get ratings that CNN wanted, her show was cancelled. I had success in that 8 p.m. hour at CNN, but it is not really fair to compare the ratings for the hour when I was there to Connie and Paula because at least three months of my time at 8 p.m. at CNN was post 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan when ALL ratings for all shows on all networks spiked. It is easy to get good or great ratings during breaking news and we had breaking news for three months of my time in that 8 p.m. slot.

I don't know why Paula could not get the numbers (ratings) that would have made CNN want to keep her at 8 p.m. One thing appeared certain in the last 18 months, CNN didn't help her and that matters. In fact, it looked like they simply abandoned her and wanted her out. She had no promotion or marketing that I saw. They did not put her on high-profile events and thus sent the message to everyone that she was finished. It seemed to me that Paula wasn't even an afterthought at CNN — CNN simply made her invisible. When that happens, failure is a given. She had no chance — zero — of success.

Watching CNN putting Paula out to dry was slow and painful and the end result inevitable. We all knew what was going to happen. When a network abandons you, you are finished. This is not to suggest that had she been given the support she would have succeeded, but she would have had a chance... without it, she had none. When a cable news show begins to have problems, there are ways to help it. I was disappointed in what was happening to Paula because I wanted to see a woman succeed not fail. Make no mistake about it, I did not want her show to beat FOX (I am loyal to my network), but I did not like watching CNN seemingly abandon the talent and act like the talent alone is the reason a show fails. Remember, Paula has had many successful years in the business... so something changed.

As I watched this slow demise unfold, as we competitors do, I thought CNN was mean — mean not just to Paula, but all the countless other producers and bookers who worked very hard on her show. CNN management — in my view — provoked the inevitable. It would have been kinder for CNN to have released her (and her staff) 18 months earlier than to let her show decline and let her get constantly trashed by the blogs and other media. Regrettably, trashing does have an effect. If enough people keep saying someone is failing, everyone will agree — whether it fair or not. For months people were asking when CNN would cancel her show — no one thought to ask when CNN would give her show support that it needed. People were talking that it was all Paula and I assume management was happy that she got all the trashing and not them.

Talent is very important to the success of a show, but management is likewise very important to the success of shows. Management may even be the key to the success or failure of a show. The success of "On The Record" is largely due to management here at FOX. They give us what we need to succeed and they help us when we need them. Without the backup you fail. With backup from management, you have a chance to be very successful and have a successful show. Even at bad times on the show if management decides to help, it rescues a show. If not, you are finished.

Management has enormous resources — from travel budgets, to positioning on the network for specials and big events, to satellites, to choice and number of bookers, to producers, to graphics, marketing, promotion, etc. Did Paula get any of these resources? In some networks management can even place you on sister networks etc., to help viewers get to know you and perhaps come back to your show to watch. If management is behind you with all their resources, it is by no means a guarantee of success, but it sure does give you a fighting chance.

If management wants to kill your show, that's even easier. All management has to do is decide you are finished and simply ignore your show. Management just has to decide it's over, marginalize you, make you invisible and then let the blogs and media critics do the dirty work for management. In other words: Finish you off. No matter how hard you work, this is a tough business and you can't do it alone.

Of course, Paula deserves some criticism for her show's lack of success, but CNN "suits" should examine their contribution to the failure of her show. They should ask themselves if they really were part of the team to make her show a success or whether they iced her months ago and just waited for the numbers to drop so low that it looked like dumping Paula was her own complete fault. In my view, CNN made a decision they did not want her and just wanted to run out her contract. Once management decided she was not their pet, she was finished — big time — and now she alone pays the price. So yes, in the "trade" that never really happened, Paula got the short end of the stick.

By the way — and as an aside — what's with all the criticism of Katie Couric? She busted the glass ceiling for women, beat everyone out for the job (both men and women) and it seems many take great pleasure in trashing her. A very influential woman said to me recently that she dislikes Katie's work on the "CBS Evening News." I asked, "How many times have you seen it?" She responded, "Once... the first night." To the woman's credit she immediately realized how silly she was judging Katie's work on one night, the first night of her evening news job. As for me, I admire Katie for her accomplishments and thank her for breaking that glass ceiling for women!

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Greta Van Susteren joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2002 as the host of the prime-time news and interview program, "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" (7-8 p.m. ET/PT Mondays through Fridays), which launched in February 2002. "On the Record" is the highest rated cable news program in the 10 p.m. timeslot. Click here for more information on Greta Van Susteren

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