- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 4, 2003

WJLA-TV (Channel 7) announced yesterday that CNN veteran Leon Harris will move to the ABC affiliate in late October to co-anchor its weekday 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts.

Mr. Harris, a fixture on CNN’s morning schedule since 1992, said he has no qualms about giving up a national audience to come to Washington, the nation’s eighth-largest television market.

“Where else can a national figure go to do local news but still cover national and international stories?” he said.

The move ends WJLA’s three-year, glass slipper-style search for a big-name anchorman. Executives also talked to former “Good Morning America” newsreader Antonio Mora, among several others.

Mr. Harris auditioned for the job in 2000 and tested better with focus groups than other candidates, WJLA executives said. Mr. Harris was reluctant to leave CNN, but WJLA’s president and general manager, Christopher W. Pike, courted him persistently.

Mr. Harris signed a “long-term” contract with WJLA in late July, but the station kept the deal quiet until CNN was ready to announce his Oct. 10 departure, Mr. Pike said.

Individuals familiar with Mr. Harris’ salary said CNN paid him more than $700,000 annually. Robert L. Allbritton, whose family owns WJLA, said he did not know what Mr. Harris earned at CNN and declined to say how much he will be paid in Washington.

“Is it an outrageous amount of money? No. Is it going to be enough for him and his family to go out and eat a nice dinner every night? Yes,” Mr. Allbritton said.

Mr. Harris joined CNN in 1983 and worked behind the scenes for several years before becoming an anchorman. The story of his rapid rise became folklore at the network’s Atlanta headquarters, but in recent years he was passed over for higher-profile anchoring jobs.

WJLA is betting Mr. Harris will become the next generation’s Jim Vance or Gordon Peterson, the very popular longtime anchormen at NBC affiliate WRC-TV (Channel 4) and CBS affiliate WUSA-TV (Channel 9), respectively.

Mr. Harris will co-anchor with Maureen Bunyan and Kathleen Matthews, but WJLA executives have not decided which woman will sit next to him during which newscast. He also will have a role on the public affairs series “Capital Sunday.”

Doug McKelway, who has co-anchored with Miss Bunyan on the 11 p.m. newscast for the past year, is expected to become a weekend anchor. Executives want Del Walters, Mrs. Matthews’ co-anchor on the 5 p.m. news since 1999, to stay with the station as a reporter, possibly with a franchise similar to the I-Team, the celebrated investigative unit he once headed.

“I would like Del to stay, and I can’t say enough good things about Doug,” Mr. Allbritton said.

The Allbrittons embarked on an ambitious campaign to boost WJLA four years ago, but the station has continued to trail its rivals in most key time periods. Its biggest coups include luring Miss Bunyan and weatherman Doug Hill, two popular WUSA veterans.

WJLA merged with sister cable network NewsChannel 8 last year, creating the region’s largest local television newsroom.

Mr. Harris, known for his enthusiasm on the air and off, said the combined WJLA-NewsChannel 8 reminds him of the once-fledgling CNN. “Every single thing I see points to this being successful,” he said.

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