Why Would CNN’s ‘Spirited, Nightly Roundtable’ Work This Time?

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Photo: Courtesy of CNN

Five years ago, CNN president Jonathan Klein gave an interview to the Times that he's probably hoping nobody looked back at today. The chat came on the heels of conservative commentator Tucker Carlson's departure from the network, after it canceled his prime-time debate show, Crossfire. Shortly before the program's demise, The Daily Show's Jon Stewart had gone on Crossfire and ripped the balls right out of its chest, arguing that its contentious, oversimplified, hacky, misleading ways were "hurting America." It was an appearance that was credited in part with pushing CNN to its decision to cancel. Tucker parted ways with the network afterward because, "he wanted to host a prime-time show in which he would put on live guests and have spirited debate," Klein said back in 2005. "That's not the kind of show CNN is going to be doing." In fact, Klein pointed fingers at rival Fox and sneered: "CNN is a different animal. We report the news. Fox talks about the news."

Overall, Klein said he "wholeheartedly" agreed "with Jon Stewart's overall premise."

Fast-forward five years, and Jon Klein is announcing a "spirited, nightly roundtable discussion program" co-anchored by a liberal and a conservative commentator. (Emphasis ours.)

This is what critics of the mainstream media call a "Gotcha!" Now, Klein and his anchors take pains to repeat the word "discussion" in their press release, rather than the word "debate." But "discussion" is cable-news code for "debate" just as much as the phrase "critics are saying" is for "we secretly think." Eliot Spitzer's nickname during his tenure as attorney general for the state of New York was "the steamroller." The guy's going to get heated on television, and no doubt CNN wants him to — high energy adds up to ratings!

Or so they're gambling. The network has to shake up its straightforward news-reading lineup in order to compete with MSNBC and Fox News as its own ratings sag at alarming rates. The Observer had a great piece this morning about how surprising it is that Eliot Spitzer's been able to stage such a public comeback, but it seems equally surprising that the prime-time debate show pulled off the same trick, after its own inglorious end.

"I don't think the public wants to see prime-time cable-news hosts bickering with one another," Dan Abrams told Intel over the phone today, reflecting on the news. Abrams is a former general manager of MSNBC who hosted his own shows on the network before leaving to launch Mediaite.com. "In prime-time cable news, you need to have a single host, someone with something to say that people can identify with. The news is out there — there has to be a reason why you come to a particular program every night." Hannity, after all, works better without Colmes. Fox News' lively Shep Smith blows CNN's staid John King out of the ratings water on the same hour, and for the most part still keeps his politics to himself.

Of course, stuck between the rock and hard place of MSNBC and Fox News' prime-time lineup, it's easy to see why CNN chose this route: If opinion is what's luring the viewers, and you still want to remain balanced, creating a show that includes opposing viewpoints seems like a pretty obvious solution. "Other cable-news channels force-feed viewers one narrow, predictable point of view," argues Klein. "In contrast, CNN will be offering a lively roundup of all the best ideas — presented by two of the most intelligent and outspoken figures in the country."

"If you're doing something everyone else isn't doing you're going to come out looking like a genius or a jackass," Dylan Ratigan reasoned over the phone today. "You usually don't find out whether you're a genius or a jackass until after you've actually attempted the project. Which is the case, I think, here." Ratigan, who helped shepherd Spitzer back onto television through his eponymous show on MSNBC (which Spitzer has guest-hosted), thinks the new show is "a first-class attempt." Whether it is just a verbal ping-pong, or an actual exercise in getting viewers closer to the truth, he says, will all depend on the execution.

It certainly will be tricky. If Crossfire couldn't work with an array of softish, familiar political talking heads, why would it work with two newbies with no television following — one of whom is most famous for when he was brought crashing to the earth by virtue of his own staggering hubris? The odds seem fairly stacked against it, and at the very least, its eventual success will require extreme patience on the part of CNN as audiences test the program out. It will also require a relative stretching of the network's increasingly narrow view of what its role is. But judging by the complete reversal Klein has made since his comments five years ago, that last bit won't be the hard part.

Earlier: CNN Taps Eliot Spitzer, Kathleen Parker for Debate Show