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CNN returns to opinion TV with show hosted by Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, June 24, 2010; C05

This was CNN five years ago: We're swearing off opinion-based prime-time programming and embarking on a crusade to find an audience more interested in straight news reporting. Now, the ratings-starved CNN has crawled back to dip its parched tongue into the restorative waters of debate TV with a new show starring disgraced/rehabbed former governor Eliot Spitzer, the New York Democrat.

His co-star on the as-yet-unnamed show: Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who is a member of The Washington Post Writers Group.

"Other cable news channels force-feed viewers one narrow, predictable point of view; 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," CNN President Jon Klein said in making the announcement Wednesday.

Wait, isn't that "Crossfire"? Is Jon Stewart listening? More from Klein's announcement: "Eliot and Kathleen are beholden to no vested interest -- in fact, quite the opposite: They are renowned for taking on the most powerful targets and most important causes."

In an interview with The TV Column, Klein said that Spitzer and Parker "can address an appetite that is not being satisfied now -- the 99 percent of the country not watching" the other 8 o'clock cable news shows.

"We'd like to begin the long, slow, steady process of reaching the underserved. . . . We think America's ready for that. . . . I can't think of two people better suited than these super-intelligent, ultra-opinionated but rational individuals."

Klein said he's not worried that neither Spitzer nor Parker has extensive on-air hosting experience yet are joining forces for a new show in a punishing time slot.

"We cast a very wide net, and after looking at scores of potential anchors, Kathleen and Eliot demonstrated they belong at the head of the pack," he said.

Klein acknowledged he's hoping the new show helps shore up ratings for the network's flagship "Larry King Live" -- its ratings have plunged by 40 percent in 2010. "Ratings are an ecosystem -- every show depends heavily on the show that proceeds it," he said.

Sometime in the fall, Spitzer and Parker will take on CNN's most anemic prime-time slot -- 8 p.m. -- where Campbell Brown has struggled with her self-titled show since fall 2008, averaging 554,000 viewers.

In May, Brown took the bullet for the company, announcing she had decided to step away from the show, because she had not been able to keep pace with the enticing rhetoric of Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor" (3.3 million viewers), MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" (1 million) and "Nancy Grace" (726,000 viewers) on HLN (formerly known as CNN Headline News).

CNN thinks Spitzer is up to the task. Spitzer: the man nicknamed "the Sheriff of Wall Street," who was elected New York governor in a landslide after promising to clean up corruption, who resigned in March 2008 when it was disclosed he was -- according to court documents -- the "Client 9" who patronized the Emperors Club VIP escort service and visited with a prostitute in a Washington hotel.

Recently, Spitzer has been doing the old phoenix-rising-from-ashes thing as a TV personality, as have so many fallen men before him. He got high marks when he subbed on MSNBC. (Spitzer is also a contributor to Slate.com, which is owned by The Washington Post Co.)

"What I've found is it's easier to be on the guest side than in the host seat," Spitzer told The TV Column of the MSNBC experience. "It's harder and more challenging to carry the conversation for an hour and elicit from guests things that are interesting."

Parker was picked because, CNN said, she is "one of the nation's most prolific and popular opinion columnists, appearing twice weekly in more than 400 newspapers" and who is "known to take a common sense approach to life and writes with humor and wit." Parker calls herself a "rational conservative"; in April, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her political opinion columns, which she launched in 1987. She joined The Washington Post Writers Group in 2006 and occasionally writes for USA Today's op-ed page.

Parker told The TV Column the show's goal is "to change people's mind." To that end, they are rounding up a stable of regular contributors for the show. "We're looking for the smartest, coolest, hippest, funniest friends."

What she likes about the new show, she said, is that "we are from such different worlds in every way. . . . And, I informed Eliot, there are lot more people like me than him."

In January 2005, when Klein announced he was killing the network's "Crossfire" debate program, he said CNN was no longer going to be doing a show in which live guests are invited to engage in spirited debate.

"CNN is a different animal. We report the news. Fox talks about the news," he told the New York Times, adding that, since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans want information, not opinion.

On Wednesday, Klein took issue with the concept of judging the network's ratings performance based on the average number of viewers watching a show. Based on the audience reach -- or sampling -- stats, he said, "people are watching -- they're just not watching long enough.

"This tells us we will get a lot of sampling, and viewers will find the show worth watching. We think Eliot and Kathleen are a can't-miss show. It's like your favorite blog -- you think, 'I can't really understand how to think about what's going on today until I've checked out XYZ blogger.' We think that's how their show is going to feel."

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