Jonathan Klein’s CNN is doing just fine from a revenue standpoint. But its most high-profile real estate – prime time – has been in a bit of a free fall lately. He needed to shake things up, give CNN some buzz, try to create appointment viewing.
His solution at 8 p.m.? Hiring a once respected Wall Street prosecutor and New York governor who took a major fall in 2008 after cavorting with prostitutes: Eliot Spitzer. He’s paired with Kathleen Parker, who calls herself a “rational conservative.”
“When you’re in a room with Eliot Spitzer,” Klein said, “he’s in high def while everyone else is in standard def. He’s so smart, so locked in, the energy he throws into it, he synthesizes all of that. He sinks his teeth into issues and not in a surface way. Kathleen Parker is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. She’s clever and insightful and provoking. Together, they make a compelling team.”
He acknowledges the controversial nature of Spitzer but feels his intelligence and TV camera friendliness will make him a compelling personality to watch. And he defends CNN’s role as a news operation.
“We play a strong journalists’ role. Ratings have their place. The way you get them is of utmost importance at CNN.”
He also espoused patience for the new but low-rated 7 p.m. show hosted by John King: “He’s one of the best political reporters of his generation night in and night out. That will pay off.”
Here is the column set to run in Monday’s print edition:
CNN is a brand in a bit of a bind.
Airing straightforward news isn’t bringing in the viewers like it used to before mobile news alerts and Twitter, especially in the evening. CNN’s ratings in prime time are down an alarming 37 percent year to date versus 2009 compared to a one percent drop for Fox News and 17 percent each for MSNBC and sister station HLN.
With the hiring last week of disgraced Democratic New York governor Eliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker for a yet unnamed 8 p.m. “roundtable”-type show this fall,CNN is attempting to dip its toes back into the opinion pool. It’s a place CNN/U.S. president Jonathan Klein loudly declared was off limits after he canceled “Crossfire” in 2005, denouncing “head butting debate shows.”
Klein, in an interview last week, promised this show will be more sophisticated than “Crossfire,” with opinions grounded in facts, not ideology. ”Both Kathleen and Eliot see the world in a more nuanced way,” he said. “They won’t hew to simple labels.”
Bobbie Battista, a former CNN anchor who left in 2001, said she’s not surprised CNN is reviving a “Crossfire”-type show but blanched at the name Spitzer. “From what I’ve seen, he could be a very capable pundit, but I’m not sure it’s a great precedent for CNN to reward bad behavior,” she said.
Spitzer, who resigned as the governor of New York in 2008 following a call-girl scandal, acknowledged that his past may be a potential hindrance for some viewers but expects people will be able to get past it and watch the show for its content: “We don’t plan to be as linear as other shows. We hope to appeal to an audience that thinks about issues from multiple perspectives.”
CNN also has problems at 9 p.m., where Larry King is stumbling, generating rumors British journalist and “America’s Got Talent” judge Piers Morgan might replace him. Klein declined to speculate on King’s future, only saying, “We are hyper-focused on the 8 p.m. show. That’s our priority right now.”
David Hazinski, head of digital and broadcast news at the University of Georgia’s Grady College, said CNN’s prime-time lineup has become less and less important over time to its bottom line, thanks to CNN’s growing online and mobile presence. At the same time, he thinks CNN needs to think outside the box about prime time programming.
The “Crossfire” format “is like ‘Home Alone 3,’ ” he said. “It’s sticking with a formula that worked before. That’s the safe, corporate thing to do. It would take a Ted Turner or Steve Jobs to try something nobody has done before.”
Given the conundrum CNN is in, it’s hard to say even Turner could find a viable answer.
For more, read http://blogs.ajc.com/radio-tv-talk