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CNN ‘Starting Point’ Staffers Brace Themselves

The announcement that CNN is totally revamping its morning show and scrapping Soledad O’Brien‘s “Starting Point” has sent shivers through her staff.

Insiders tell us Executive VP Ken Jautz and VP Bart Feder addressed the staff after the show went off the air today. Suffice it to say, the era of Jeff Zucker is underway.

In a nutshell, the execs said they have no answers for the staff and were unable to address most of their questions. Members of the staff were assured their jobs were safe, but one veteran of the changing show carousel at CNN says they would be naive to believe that.

“Every single one of these people should be preparing their resumes and trying to get out of that building as fast as possible,” a network insider told FishbowlDC, explaining that staffers are worried for their jobs. The prevailing feeling is that O’Brien, who previously worked with Zucker at NBC, will end up in another role.

For the month of January, “Starting Point” drew an average of 264,000 viewers. MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” drew 468,000 and FNC’s “Fox & Friends” drew 1.07 million. “Morning Express” on HLN drew 218,000. The broadcast shows (CBS, ABC, NBC) drew millions more than any of the aforementioned programs. In other words, “Starting Point” is behind everyone except its sister network HLN, and HLN is getting close.

Another network insider with a vantage point to this morning’s meeting said it was hilarious to watch Jautz and Feder address the “Starting Point” staff, considering they were two of the main culprits who contributed to the potential demise and dismantling of the show.

From day one, “Starting Point” was in disarray, according to multiple sources aware of the drama going on behind the scenes of the show. It wasn’t supposed to debut in January, 2012, but the decision was made to rush it on the air to coincide with the Iowa caucus. From its launch the show was never fully staffed; all the promises of branding and promotion never materialized; and the constant executive in-fighting over what to do with the show angered its host and staff.

Former CNN Managing Editor Mark Whitaker, who announced his resignation Tuesday, loved the panel format because he desired the show to have the same buzz as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” But Jautz hated the panel, resulting in it being downsized from 7-9 a.m. to 7:30 to 9 a.m. And when Soledad was off, the panel was only on from 8-9 a.m.

Jautz also detested a single-anchor format. He preferred a two-anchor format, even going as far as focus-group testing Brooke Baldwin and John Berman when O’Brien was away.

So as Whitaker and Jautz waged a constant battle over who would control the destiny of CNN – a scenario set up by then-CNN President Jim Walton when he divided up the duties of Jon Klein when he was canned – “Early Start” and “Starting Point” were ground zero for their battle.

Many staffers were stunned when Feder constantly complained that the viewership of “Early Start” and “Starting Point” was “too ethnic,” based on the high concentration of minority viewers. This common complaint worked itself up through the company, to CNN’s Diversity Committee, and to other staffers, who were mortified that a CNN executive was squabbling over attracting minority viewers. *Update below.

For all of of the talk that “Starting Point” has been a failure, CNN execs have few to blame. Phil Kent, CEO of Turner, CNN’s parent company, is said to have hated the show and O’Brien in particular. Sources say he routinely ripped the show in the past six months.

All in all, staffers are feeling a cocktail mix of emotions that include relief, fear and anger. They say they’ve long tired of conflicting messages, promises that were never delivered, and a schizophrenic vision offered by a cadre of executives who never got along.

But they are also angry. Angry that they never got a chance to really develop the show. Angry that great ideas died before they could be hatched. When you have Walton, Jautz, Whitaker, Feder and any other CNN exec with an opinion telling the producers and host what to do, that many chefs may just be guaranteed to ruin what could have been a great meal.

We reached out to CNN for comment.

UPDATE: To clarify, Feder’s issue with “Starting Point” was that the audience was too small and happened to be predominately comprised of minorities. A source close to the show insists that the ethnicity of the audience was never the issue, it was the size. Feder in no way meant to imply that the audience was too ethnic.

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