Whatever CNN's president may officially say, the network has finally succumbed to the trend of politically spun news programming that boosted rivals Fox News and MSNBC and left the once-dominant cable news leader in a ratings gutter.
The Time Warner-owned CNN announced on Wednesday that it would replace the 8 p.m. newscast recently abandoned by the engaging Campbell Brown with a right-left pair of political pundits: Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced-cum-rehabilitated former governor of New York, and Kathleen Parker, a little-known syndicated conservative columnist.
CNN President Jon Klein tried to spin the announcement as something other than trailing the path blazed by Roger Ailes. (Read: CNN's Jon Klein: We're Not Endorsing One Side or the Other).
“What we want to do here is facilitate lively, smart discussion, with multiple points of view,” he told TheWrap in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not that we’re suddenly endorsing one side or another. This country already has a super-conservative network and super-liberal network.”
But it seems rather obvious that objective news coverage, long the proud tradition of CNN, took a blow to the midsection. The new show means that ideologically spun debate will replace a central hour of news programming, followed by Larry King, whose future is also a matter of question at the network. (Klein: "(A replacement) for Larry King is not a priority.")
CNN’s Klein has stubbornly resisted the urge to fill its primetime lineup with opinionated hosts. But he has also sat idly as its ratings have fallen behind the once-laughable MSNBC, and as the shrill Fox News keeps lapping the network with the likes of Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly.
It remains to be seen whether national advertisers will feel comfortable with the shift. CNN has generally attracted a more tony breed of ad buyers, who have not worred about a political association that might brand their brand on Fox or MSNBC.
Meanwhile, in another sign of the times, former New York governor Spitzer said the goal of the new show was not so much political spin, but entertainment. (Read: Eliot Spitzer & Kathleen Parker: 'We're Best Buddies Now')
Spitzer and Parker told TheWrap their show will be a "cocktail party" featuring discussions on an "eclectic" variety of topics.
"What we're going after," Spitzer said, "is unpredictable."
The hosts have opposing political perspectives, but insisted their show won't be a standard liberal vs. conservative shout-fest.
Parker is a syndicated columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in May, and who has taken stances unpopular with the Republican base in the past. In 2008 she called on the Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin to step down from the party ticket, saying a series of media interviews showed Palin was "clearly out of her league.”
And Spitzer might reliably be expected to have untraditional views about the parade of sex scandals that seem to plague all politicians of late, since his demise came about as a result of his own predilection for high-end call girls.
Klein also downplayed the notion that the hiring of Spitzer brings with it a lot of extramarital baggage.
“I think any baggage any viewers have about him will be washed away when they see the show,” he said. “It’s going to be intelligent conversation between two adults, both of whom are free of vested interests, beholden to no one.”
But CNN is beholden to its competition – a pair of networks that have established primetime lineups filled with strong opinions and loyal audiences.
What remains to be seen is if there is any room left on the dial for another.