By DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK — For the past few months, CNN’s Erin Burnett and her team have stared at the television equivalent of a blank page.
The former CNBC anchor was lured to CNN with the promise of being able to start her own daily program from scratch. How she responds to that challenge – how she fills the page – starts to become clear when her weeknight CNN show “Outfront” debuts at 7 p.m. EDT on Oct. 3.
“It is the most exciting part of the job that we have,” said Wil Surratt, the show’s executive producer. “It’s the most creative and the most fun. It is also the most terrifying part, but that’s why you do what you do.”
The job requires creating something compelling and distinctive at a time when personality-driven cable news shows seem a dime a dozen, and making sure CNN is competitive with established rivals Shepard Smith on Fox News Channel and Chris Matthews on MSNBC.
Burnett’s first phone call on getting the job was to Surratt.
They had worked together on CNBC’s “Street Signs,” and Surratt has wide experience producing news programs. He worked on CNN’s “American Morning” with Paula Zahn, on Aaron Brown and Anderson Cooper’s CNN shows, and on “The Big Idea” with Donnie Deutsch on CNBC. He has also helped craft local news programs.
“I’ve done a few where I was the fix-it guy,” Surratt said. “It’s not as fun. Where it works is when you have a good partner – good talent or a good boss. As much as I would like to take credit for all of the good shows that I have worked, the truth is it’s a collaborative process.”
So far, he said the bosses at CNN have been supportive but not meddling. They’ve told him to “maximize (Burnett’s) talent, take the best parts of Erin and create something that delivers news in a fresh way that doesn’t betray the values of CNN.”
The first thing on which they needed to agree was a vision statement, and in Burnett’s eyes it is to create a modern nightly news.
The volume of stories presented won’t be as high as traditional newscasts, or a show such as the one led by Fox’s Smith. But Burnett said she wants to look for fresh angles on the day’s biggest stories: During a recent rehearsal where President Obama’s deficit plan was discussed, Burnett interviewed a millionaire who argued against increasing any of his taxes.
“We believe that there really is a space for a news program to be very successful,” she said. Younger people, she said, don’t want traditional newscasts and want to get their news in a livelier format.
Essays will be another element. Burnett has written about the decline of physical books with the growth in e-readers, and talked about the rush of lawyers to get involved in the wake of the Reno air show disaster.
Burnett, 35, and Surratt both want a newscast tailored to her strengths.
“I’m not a good newsreader,” she said. “I’m very casual in my posture and delivery. That could be a negative in a certain atmosphere. But that is going to be part of what defines this.”
Burnett began her career as a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs, before leaving to become a writer for CNN’s “Moneyline” program. She worked on the online financial network at Citigroup, and then Bloomberg. She met top NBC executive Bob Wright when he taped an interview with Charlie Rose at Bloomberg’s headquarters, and Wright recommended her for a job at CNBC.
That’s when her star rose, first paired with the late Mark Haines and with her afternoon show “Street Signs.” Burnett said she’d use her business expertise in the new CNN show, but emphasized that it’s a general news program.
Surratt and Burnett are tied to each other with their Blackberries, constantly tossing out ideas as news breaks each day.
“The curating is very personal on this show,” Burnett said. “The viewer is going to know what kind of stories that we care about.”
To debut a show can be a delicate process. Producers and stars alike know that there’s a high percentage of critics and the curious in the audience, tempting them to pack as many of their new ideas as they can into one show, often prepared in advance. The result can be a show that feels rushed or stale: Eliot Spitzer’s overcrowded CNN debut and Katie Couric’s first “CBS Evening News” broadcast are two examples.
Surratt said he’s conscious of the pitfalls.
“The show will develop from day one to day two to day 10 to day 20,” he said.