CBS News and CNN Are Back in Partnership Negotiations

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Anderson Cooper is already a 60 Minutes contributor; Katie Couric might be a good replacement for Larry King.

CBS News and CNN are in advanced negotiations about signing a news-gathering partnership, according to executives familiar with the discussions. The talks revolve around how the two news divisions can combine operations in a bid to cut costs and expand audiences on both sides. While such conversations have occurred over the last decade, the current news-business climate — plummeting CNN ratings, ever-shrinking evening-news audiences, major layoffs at ABC — make a deal more logical than ever before. The talks are still fluid, which means that executives would speak only on condition of anonymity, but CNN and CBS began negotiations some time ago. "It's been going on for a couple of months," one person with knowledge of the matter said. "They’re in deep talks."

The discussions resume years of on-and-off flirtation between CBS News and CNN. In the past, talks have broken down over issues like how marquee talent at each network would be shared across the combined entity or which channel would retain control of editorial decisions. "There were huge structural issues, like who would be on the air," one executive explained. CBS and Time Warner remain on friendly terms, and the talks are happening soon after CBS Sports and Time Warner signed a $10.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA basketball championship for the next fourteen years.

For CBS CEO Les Moonves, a deal with CNN makes sense at this difficult moment for network news. Late last month, ABC News completed a brutal round of layoffs that gutted its news division by 25 percent. CBS, like ABC, lacks a cable channel that could help shelter the costs of staffing a news division. Rival NBC has been increasingly steering its highly paid network talent, from Andrea Mitchell to Tom Brokaw, to its MSNBC cable outlet. Both CBS and ABC have long thought CNN might make an attractive partner. At one point several years ago, ABC News and CNN got into advanced talks that even involved Time Warner’s board of directors, one executive with knowledge of those talks said. But again, a final deal fell apart.

This time around, television executives speculate that the economics make too much sense. CBS News has previously expressed interest in recruiting CNN star Anderson Cooper, who already appears as a contributor to 60 Minutes. And next May, Katie Couric’s reported $15 million annual contract with CBS is up for renewal. A combined CBS-CNN might offer more possibilities to negotiate Couric’s new deal while giving her additional opportunities to showcase her interviews. CNN’s ratings struggles against Fox News and MSNBC would conceivably benefit from an injection of CBS News star power, if terms about sharing talent could be reached. One scenario is that if Couric vacates the evening news, she could serve as a replacement for Larry King while continuing to file reports for 60 Minutes. At CBS News, said one senior news executive, 60 Minutes would be exempt from any CNN partnership.

Both CBS and Time Warner declined to comment on the talks about the CBS News–CNN partnership.