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Interview: On His One-Year Anniversary, CNN/U.S. Prez Jon Klein Looks Long-Term

“Time flies!”

Jon Klein is on the phone from Washington, D.C. Today is his one-year anniversary as president of CNN/U.S.

In an interview with TVNewser, Klein said his first few months at the network were a real adventure, “taking stock of who we have.” He said he “threw challenges at the organization to see whether we were able to step up and meet them.” He used December’s tsunami as an example. “We put the pedal to the metal and asked the organization to step up big-time and stay on the story and push beyond the headlines and get to the human stories. They surpassed my wildest expectations.”

Klein stressed his appreciation for the staff of CNN. “It’s been so gratifying to see how able the organization has been to just step up to the challenge of delivering incredible news that is more appealing to the audience,” he said. “And they’ve done it, maintaining our quality, expanding upon our reputation for being everywhere that’s important to be. It’s been heartening to me.”

He cited coverage of the BTK killer’s capture, the Schiavo case and the Pope’s death as examples of “focusing our reporting capabilities.”

“The other nice surprise out of all that was how quickly the audience responded in terms of the buzz about us and the sense of momentum,” Klein said. “We became the leaders again in terms of quality and approach and vision.”

Has the audience really responded? FNC beats CNN every day in total viewers and the 25-54 demo. But Klein said CNN is “up for the year in the 25-54 demo” (scroll down for charts). I noted that Fox News frequently focuses on total viewership numbers, and asked why he was emphasizing the 25-54 demographic.

“The only rating that matters to an advertiser, and therefore the only rating that matters to any cable channel, is the 25-54 demo,” Klein said. “They know that and we know that. To talk about anything else is specious and misleading…if you were down 12 percent in the demo in primetime, you’d want to escape the conversation too. But the number they can’t escape is that they’re down in primetime and we’re up in primetime.”

> Update: 5:34pm: A Fox News spokesperson responded this afternoon: “Poor Jon…After losing market share during one of the busiest news years in recent memory, you have to wonder how long a savvy CEO like Dick Parsons will put up with his excuses and start demanding better results.”

So how will CNN grow the audience? Klein said an “aggressive, high-energy approach to covering the news” will continue to be the network’s hallmark.

“There’s been a myth that fast-paced was anathema to comprehension or quality or impact or importance. But in fact, the two can live very nicely together,” he said, adding that the high energy “reflects the fast pace at which news happens today.”

Klein has simplified the network’s schedule, centered around signature programming like American Morning, The Situation Room and Anderson Cooper 360.

“Everything that we’re doing is about the long-term process of defining our voice, communicating to the audience that we’re essential viewing, and taking the time to let things grow,” he said.

That led to my final question: “Do you think you’ll be here in another 12 months?”

“I sure hope so,” he said. “I certainly deserve to be, if my boss is reading this!,” he laughed.

“I only came here because my boss, Jim Walton, and his boss, Phil Kent, both showed an understanding and an embrace that this is a long-term process. It takes years to build up your identity and generate momentum. The fact that we’ve been able to create as much momentum as fast as we’ve been able to puts us ahead of schedule of where we want to be…We’ve said all along, we weren’t going to win the ratings race right away, but we’re making steady, satisfying progress.”

He expects the momentum to continue in the next year. “We’ll look to consolidate the gains we’ve made,” he said. The Situation Room and 360 are “finding their footing editorially. It’s a very tricky thing to do. 60 Minutes took five years to really find its voice. 20/20 took years, years, before it really clicked. We’re just beginning. There’s a lot more to come.”

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