Another dumb move by CNN

Why would anyone at CNN think it was a good idea to give a prime-time talk show to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker? There is only one reason anyone thinks Spitzer will be a ratings winner, and it’s not his non-existent journalism background or even his sharp analytical mind.

I’m not going to rehash what I’ve said before about CNN; you can read it here if you like.

Briefly, though, CNN touts itself as a profitable, news-driven alternative to the ideological talk shows on Fox and MSNBC. So why act as though your every programming decision is based on ratings? If CNN is truly in a different business from Fox and MSNBC, then what does it mean to say CNN comes in “third”?

Given that there is almost no way CNN can have an impact at 8 p.m. against the O’Reilly-Olbermann juggernaut, Jon Klein and company should have tried something radical. Like news. How about an hour of CNN International, which everyone who has traveled overseas tells me is exponentially better than what’s on the three U.S. cable nets?

13 thoughts on “Another dumb move by CNN

  1. Mike Stucka

    Just last night I was reading something rather damning about Spitzer, which summed it up rather briefly. From The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt:
    . “Americans have become masters of ‘sacrifice avoidance,’ ” intones Eliot Spitzer in his Slate column. This immensely wealthy man, who spent more than $100,000 on prostitutes and thereby cost New York its best shot in a generation at a functioning state government, tells me to read the Gettysburg Address and be inspired to “a greater sense of national purpose”?

    Ouch.

  2. Neil Sagan

    Why would anyone at CNN think it was a good idea to give a prime-time talk show to former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker?

    Parker is not exactly my cup of tea but I think she’s perfectly capable of reading the news and leading discussions about it, especially political stories. If you’ve seen her on Chris Matthews weekend show, you know why I think so.

    If you’ve seen Spitzer on MSNBC you’d know he’s quite capable of the interview skills that a host has with guest who offer their take on the story, notwithstanding his “non-existent journalism background” and his “sharp analytical mind.”

    Spitzer is smart enough to learn what he needs to know on the job. In fact, he’s been doing it at MSNBC for a while as guest and guest host. Who wouldn’t trade a sharp analytical mind for a journalism background any day of the week? Here are some cases in point – Chuck Todd, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Joe Scarborough, Sean Hannity – of news/opinion hosts who I’d gladly trade for someone with Spitzer’s skills.

    I’m not claiming the Spitzer/Parker show will be a success, I’m just saying the personnel CNN chose gives it a good chance to succeed. Dan is saying 1) the personnel don’t give it a chance and 2) CNN is barking up the wrong tree by going with opinion/news analysis. Dan is wrong on both counts.

    Let’s unpack this hurriedly considered thesis:
    Briefly, though, CNN touts itself as a profitable, news-driven alternative to the ideological talk shows on Fox and MSNBC. So why act as though your every programming decision is based on ratings? If CNN is truly in a different business from Fox and MSNBC, then what does it mean to say CNN comes in “third”?

    Well Dan, advertising drives revenue so ratings are extremely important to cable television networks since they are businesses in the business of making profits. “Why act as though your every programming decision is based on ratings?” Why? Because it is. Perhaps a better question to ask is, Will Spitzer and Parker be news-driven or is this a departure from their stated business plan?

    “If CNN is truly in a different business from Fox and MSNBC…” It isn’t. They are both selling news and opinion and competing for the same viewers aka ratings.

    I can’t wait to read Dan’s take down of Fox’s “Fair & Balanced” business model. That seems like a hypocrisy far easier to expose than CNN’s. But then this isn’t about hypocrisy, it’s about the media business and Dan knowing better that the people actually making these decisions.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: You’re damn right I could put together a better prime-time line-up on CNN than Jon Klein. So could my cat. Ultimately it’s not about ratings; it’s about money. I couldn’t find a link, but as recently as yesterday I was told that CNN’s ad rates are higher than Fox’s and MSNBC’s. Why do you suppose that is? And do you think it can last as CNN travels down the same dumb talk-show route as its putative competition?

  3. Neil Sagan

    What other decisions can Jon Klein take credit for at CNN? How about you? How about your cat?

    I feel uninformed for asking this but doesn’t ratings drive advertising rates?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Neil: Klein gets the “credit” for canceling Aaron Brown’s “NewsNight” and replacing it with “Anderson Cooper 360.” “NewsNight” was the most intelligent newscast on television (yes, I’m including “The NewsHour”). It also got higher ratings than “AC360.” I have no problem with Cooper, but it seems insane that Klein couldn’t find room for Brown, too.

      Klein also deserves immense credit for holding onto Larry King so long that he’s now pulling the entire prime-time line-up into oblivion. Please don’t kid yourself that Klein knows what he’s doing. Any reasonably intelligent news consumer could come up with better ideas than he has.

      Ad rates are a function of ratings and demographics. Numbers are hard to come by. But the reason Fox’s (and MSNBC’s) ratings are higher than CNN’s is that the talk-show viewers sit and watch for longer periods of time. At one time — not sure if this is still true — CNN had a higher number of total viewers per hour than Fox even though it lagged significantly in the ratings. That’s because more people were tuning in for shorter periods of time to catch up on the news.

      Because CNN’s viewers are also more affluent and better-educated than Fox’s, CNN is able to charge more for its ads. Another reason: Let’s say you’re going to advertise the same product once every quarter-hour. Advertisers will pay a premium to reach CNN’s viewers once. It’s not as worthwhile to them to reach Fox’s viewers multiple times.

  4. Aaron Read

    Not long before the Spitzer scandal broke…a few months, maybe less, IIRC…Spitzer participated in what was supposed to be the first of a monthly series of “Ask the Governor” hourlong radio shows produced by pubradio outlet WAMC in Albany and distributed to all pubradio stations in NY State. The first one was just podcasted out on a quick turnaround, but if the series kept going they were planning on satellite distribution – usually a mark that a show is serious about being around for the long haul. I decided to air it on WEOS, thinking it might be a decent window into state government…which is both a spectator and contact sport in NY!

    Even if the scandal hadn’t broken…that first episode probably would’ve been the last. It was AWFUL. Spitzer dodged every question, sounded incredibly awkward, and played the “who can kiss up to the other more” with the host for the hour. Ugh.

    Certainly based on that, I wouldn’t give Spitzer a show on cable access…much less CNN.

    (note: FWIW, given everything that’s happened with Paterson, I’d rather have Spitzer back as our governor…but I’m not gonna apologize for his lack of TV presence beyond a sound bite or press conference.)

  5. Laurence Glavin

    Over on the radio side of the business, Arbitron is now using a device called the Portable People Meter (sing a boop boop aboopa lopa lum bam boom) to measure radio audiences in several markets, including Boston. The ratings now include what are called “cumes”, the overall cumulative audience for a station. Thus some stations have lesser pure “ratings” than other stations but higher “cumes”; others have higher pure “ratings” but smaller “cumes”. It’s the “time-spent-listening” factor, and the appeal for some advertisers is getting enough audience turnover that a whole different set of listeners is present when your spot airs again.

  6. Brad Deltan

    @ Laurence: Other than NYC, I don’t think the PPM is in use in any of the markets in New York state. It was only supposed to go to the top 50 markets.

    And I’m a little confused…how does the PPM relate to this discussion? I’m sure our ratings would’ve shown a sharp dip during that hour Spitzer was on if we had PPM…but otherwise…

  7. Laurence Glavin

    I started the post with the words “On the radio side of the business” to note how media time buyers of both television and radio take time spent with the medium in question as a factor before deciding which channels or outlets to place their advertising. Thus raw data can be incidental to making those choices. And I have no concern about whether PPMs are run in the rest of NY State, although in a sense they are run in the Long Island, NY market as part of NYC.

  8. Neil Sagan

    I take issue with this formulation by Parker:

    One does not have to be from a rural Georgia backwater (Clarence Thomas), or the child of recently arrived immigrants (Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito), to qualify as a justice, though it might help in claiming identity with ordinary people.

    I see. If your parents are immigrants, you went to Princeton, and you advocated traditional values such as fighting against inclusion of women and minorities in traditional Princeton student institutions, then you may just be an “ordinary person”. If you went to a top law school and joined the Federalist Society you almost certainly have “ordinary person” status.

    Obama doesn’t claim to want ordinary people on the court, he wants brilliant people who recognize the impact of supreme court decision on ordinary people.

    Nonetheless, I don’t mind Parker’s ideological bias as long as there are intelligent people on the program to call her on it.

    Is there any attribute of a person’s words that one group or another wont cite to try and disqualify a person from hosting a nightly TV program? It’s not exactly hate speech. No, it’s debatable, so let’s debate and let ideas win on the merit.

  9. Donna Dunn

    I forgot to write my last name, so I am re-posting. I have to take exception to CNN International being superior to CNN. When they, the US Govt, and many countries called Honduras’ ousting of their corrupt President a coup, I knew they had no idea what a coup was. I live here, it wasn’t, and now everyone knows it wasn’t. We, here in Honduras, have a new name for CNN…..Chavez News Network.

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