What Should CNN Do Next – Er, Right Now!

What should CNN do? Well, you know what they say: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em – and that’s exactly what CNN has to do now.

The venerable news network has just been granted a huge opportunity to remake its prime-time lineup. Larry King‘s show at 9 o’clock had long been the 800-pound gorilla in the room, a TV show that didn’t quite fit with the rest of CNN or, for that matter, the rest of cable news in the evening. CNN has long known it, but until Larry’s ratings started their sharp decline, no one bothered to try and do anything about it.

King’s show was long out of synch. While the other news channels, MSNBC and Fox News, held spirited debates about the hot-button issues of the day, you’d turn on CNN and see Larry interviewing someone like Barbara Eden or the psychic medium James Van Praagh “for the full hour!!” as Larry used to exclaim.

Meanwhile, in the hours just before and after “Larry King Live,” CNN tried to preserve its position as the one cable news channel out of the three that offered “real” news in prime time. The problem with that is, it hasn’t worked – Campbell Brown‘s 8 p.m. news/discussion show sank like a stone and the audience for Anderson Cooper‘s “360” is declining almost as fast as King’s.

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Hey, Cooper’s an authentic, hard-working journalist who does a fine job “keeping them honest” and all that, but there’s one thing wrong with his approach: Nobody cares.

It’s pretty obvious by now that the majority of people who watch the cable news channels in the evening tune in to see over-the-top, outspoken stars like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox or Keith Olbermann on MSNBC issue outrageous opinions and demolish their opponents. It’s not really news anymore – it’s theater. And CNN’s approach, which was to position itself as the “real-news” alternative to the other two, has only resulted in CNN falling farther and farther behind.

It’s high time CNN simply joined the fray and made it a real three-way race. The network has already made a start by hiring the lightning-rod, scandal-scarred ex-governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, to host an 8 p.m. talk show starting this fall.

Now, CNN has to press on in its campaign to find other personalities to handle the 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. hours. Sorry, Anderson Cooper, but you’re the next shoe to drop. CNN will get nowhere fast if it remakes the 8 and 9 p.m. hours and preserves”360.”

Ryan Seacrest replacing Larry? No way. The last thing CNN needs at 9 is another interviewer who will lob softball questions at celebrities. And by the way, it’s a certainty that CNN management doesn’t give a rat’s patoot that Larry has “endorsed” Seacrest as his successor. Larry could endorse Pope Benedict to replace him and it wouldn’t matter to CNN.

Piers Morgan? Who’s he? That’s what most viewers will say if he’s hired to replace King. An Englishman best known for judging reality-competition shows? You’ve got to be kidding. Hey, I have an idea: Why not hire Gordon Ramsay? Now there’s a TV personality who’s not afraid to kick some butt. But Piers Morgan? Big mistake.

The most intriguing name to pop up in the Larry King successor sweepstakes is Joy Behar, who happens to be a great choice. Why? Because she’s extremely capable. She’s funny and outspoken. She’s unpredictable, which happens to be a great character trait for a prime-time cable news personality to possess. And as a talk-show host, she’s seasoned – she’s been on “The View” since the beginning of that show’s remarkable run and the audience for her own talk show on CNN’s HLN (formerly Headline News) has been growing.

In fact, the HLN shows, hosted by the likes of Nancy Grace and Jane Velez Mitchell, are really the template for where CNN should be heading – angry, outspoken personalities who take a scorched-earth approach to every subject they cover.

Good luck, Larry, but your retirement is one of the best things to happen to CNN in ages. If CNN can just learn to live with the fact that real news is a thing of the past in prime-time, then the network has a golden opportunity to rise again.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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