CNN is following the strategy I felt they would follow when I first saw the debut of “Parker Spitzer”: CNN is going to hang in there since despite some (franky predictable) pounding by some reviewers, the show has potential — including ratings potential:
Eliot Spitzer’s debut on CNN’s prime-time lineup has been greeted by tepid viewing and some scathing reviews. But the network plans to give the former New York governor time to build on signs of early growth, as producers hone the show’s tone and format.
FOOTNOTE: Some of the reviews were predictable because they would use as a peg the scandal that forced Elliot Splitzer to resign as New York Governor. Those were reviews that could easily be anticipated. There were some others written by people who were resentful of CNN using Spitzer.
The show, “Parker Spitzer,” is a cornerstone of the Time Warner Inc. network’s effort to rebuild its lineup and boost its declining audience. It pairs the liberal Mr. Spitzer with conservative newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker—a combination that CNN hopes will inject energy into its evenings, without diluting the network’s nonpartisan identity.
The hosts’ 8 p.m. timeslot is perhaps the most competitive in television news, and “Parker Spitzer” has lagged. In its first three nights on the air last week, the audience for Bill O’Reilly on Fox News was more than six times as large as that for Mr. Spitzer and Ms. Parker, according to Nielsen Co. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann’s audience was nearly triple. MSNBC is owned by General Electric Co., while Fox News is, like The Wall Street Journal, owned by News Corp.
But by Thursday, the audience for “Parker Spitzer” had grown nearly a quarter among younger viewers from its debut, Nielsen said. After its first night, it also started surpassing the audience for CNN’s 9 p.m. host, Larry King, among viewers between 25 and 54 years old, the most common target audience for news advertisers. As part of its turnaround, CNN is planning to replace the 76-year-old interviewer with Piers Morgan, a former British newspaper editor, in January.
“We weren’t in this for the first night,” Bart Feder, senior vice president of programming at CNN/US, said during an interview Friday. “We’re in this to launch and to let it grow. And we’re confident it will.”
I often point to our former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock as someone who started off weak in broadcasting but later made the adustment, fine tuned his radio talk show and became a slick and popular talk show host. His conservative talk show (he was actually a relatively liberal San Diego Mayor) was not great guns when he first debuted. I know because I as then working as a reporter on the San Diego Union. But I had interviewed Hedgecock briefly several times for quotes for stories and unlike some on the paper really liked him (I had also voted for him) and made sure I listened while heading out to assignments. I even later got tickets and sat in the audience for an episode of his short-lived TV talk show.
Hedgecock made the shift from wannabe talk show host to a real talk show host in terms of pacing, material, questioning and the style in which he expresses his opinions. I don’t agree much with where Hedgecock is coming from these days — but his station hung in with him and never regretted it.
Similarly, while it’s extremely hard carving out a productive space in the middle, if CNN gives Parker Spitzer breathing space it could pay off in terms of show quality, pacing (if anything to some critics it seemed almost over caffeinated at times) and ratings. Of course, beating Larry King is really no big deal these days. Larry King is now sort of like Frank Sinatra in his later years. It wasn’t that Sinatra was less popular at the end, it was that his audience was dying off. Larry King’s appeal to young or younger viewers is increasingly limited — unless he has Lady Gaga on one day.
Bottom line: Smart decision on CNN’s end to ignore the critics and stick with it if shows signs of growing, slowing or quickly.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.