News purists who holler at the thought of CNN opining are certainly no fans of Don Lemon, its emerging star capable of both commanding a poignant segment in Charleston, South Carolina following the church gun massacre and asking guests if aliens swallowed a missing jetliner.
This week, Lemon's latest viral sensation occurred after a racial stunt, leading his show Monday by brazenly flashing a giant N-word sign and asking viewers if it offended them. Social media lit Lemon up, attacking the anchor's stunt while suggesting CNN has mailed in news for sensational.
Lemon's N-word theatrics was indeed a stunt--and a score. "CNN Tonight" at 10 p.m. ET was first in the advertising-coveted 25-54 demo--the one network chief Jeff Zucker cares most about-- on all of CNN and MSNBC with 188,000 viewers.
During breaking news, the 49-year-old anchor has also walked the walk: in the heat of the Ferguson protests in November, he ranked third among all cable news shows in the younger demo, beating many Fox News shows with 423,000 viewers while attracting 869,000 total viewers.
The longtime weekend anchor, who was awarded the primetime gig in 2014, has become a never-ending headline machine, mocked and occasionally lauded for everything from shouting matches with rappers to advising an alleged Bill Cosby rape victim on penis-biting as a form of rape prevention.
"Executives and executive producers love it because he brings numbers and attention," one CNN insider told TheWrap. "Some producers think it's grandstanding--he's playing a role, ruins serious conversations and is self-serving."
In effect, he's become the Donald Trump of TV news: a personality who tosses his impressive resume out the window in favor of creating a riveting circus show.
He's also become CNN's best shot to one day retake the cable news crown from Fox News, one it gave up 13 years ago. Network higher-ups have often poured cold water on the notion that they give a fig about challenging Fox News, but Zucker--who's called the "fair and balanced" network a front for the Republican Party--can read between the ratings lines.
FNC has the oldest audience in cable news, nearing 70--CNN has the youngest at 58. In 2013, when Zucker started as CNN president and started implementing a hybrid original series and more buzzworthy news strategy, FNC shed viewers in primetime, posting its lowest total viewer audience in six years and its lowest younger viewer audience in 12.
More telling, based on the last two presidential elections, the country is moving to the left and showing few signs of reversing course in 2016, potentially making Fox's predominantly conservative audience more niche over the next decade.
Which makes now an optimal time for CNN to take its Lemon and make sweet lemonade: it's time to move Don Lemon to 8 p.m. primetime.
But what about Anderson Cooper, the star that CNN has poured millions into in salary and marketing over the last decade? He's still one of the best pure news reporters in the business, delivering groundbreaking reports from around the world during breaking news.
But he's never been appointment TV, and in the new social TV age, where drawing attention on Twitter, digital sites and shows like "The View" are as important as the day-to-day ratings number, CNN would be better served with a noisemaker who can also deliver the news in its most important time slot.
All Jeff Zucker has to do is look to the competition as a case study: many forget Bill O'Reilly wasn't a ratings rocket for Fox News right out of the gate. He hosted the "O'Reilly Report" at 6 p.m. before Roger Ailes moved him to the prime real estate that is 8 p.m.
O'Reilly has never looked back.
Imagine a lineup featuring Lemon at 8 p.m., creating buzz on-air and social. Mid-show, Lemon goes to Anderson Cooper, either on-set or globetrotting around the world for that week's big story, teeing up the next hour anchored by the "Silver Fox." Which could then seamlessly lead into CNN's original series wheel at 10 p.m. with Lemon repeating at 11 p.m. and occasionally coming back live if the story is big enough.
It's a strategy that thrusts the new CNN, serious with a side of sensational, to the forefront.
If CNN wants to once again become the cable news talk of the town, it should tab Lemon as its star.