Has CNN Solved Its Identity Crisis? Or Made It Worse?

Has CNN made the right call with Piers Morgan and Eliot Spitzer? (NBC/Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

Has CNN made the right call with Piers Morgan and Eliot Spitzer? (NBC/Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)

A new lineup being set at CNN? Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But who will watch it – liberals, conservatives? You?

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CNN’s announcements this week filled in some blanks in its prime-time plans. The news channel unveiled a name for its 8 o’clock talk show – ‘Parker Spitzer’ (co-hosted by Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer) – and a premiere date (Oct. 4), and then confirmed that Piers Morgan has officially been hired to replace Larry King at 9 (a changing of the guard that had been reported for months). The Piers show apparently has no name yet (‘Piers Morgan Live’?), but it will probably bow in January.

CNN Christens Its New Talk Show ‘Parker Spitzer’

OK, fine. But CNN still has the same problem it had before – its identity, and where it fits in alongside its more easily definable rivals, Fox News Channel and NBC-owned MSNBC.

Everyone knows the territory each of those two has staked out for itself. Fox News is the right-wing outlet favored by conservatives whose devotion to Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck has made FNC the top-rated cable news destination. It’s the same audience that has made so many conservative AM radio personalities rich and famous.

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MSNBC‘s appeal is just as clear-cut – it’s the lefty channel, as exemplified by Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, whose fans love it when they attack the ratings leaders on Fox News. MSNBC trails Fox News in the ratings perhaps because when it comes to watching TV or listening to talk radio, liberals aren’t quite as rabid as conservatives. Just look at Air America, the radio network that featured Al Franken. While conservative radio hosts thrive, Air America bit the dust.

So where does all this leave CNN? Basically, despite all of its plans for new prime-time programs, CNN is still where it’s been for years, staking out territory in the wishy-washy center, somewhere between FNC and MSNBC.

Not that CNN isn’t noble for positioning itself as a non-partisan network you can count on for reporting real news (at least most of the time), but take a closer look at this new lineup. At 8 pm, you have a new nightly show with two hosts, equitably representing the left (Spitzer) and the right (Parker). ‘Parker Spitzer’ is CNN’s answer to the right-left conundrum – produce a show that presents both points of view.

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At 9 pm, we’ll have Piers Morgan. He’s best-known to most of us as the sourpuss judge on ‘America’s Got Talent’ – the one who’s more likely to turn thumbs-down on contestants than his nicer colleagues Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel. Morgan’s untested here in the U.S. as a TV interviewer, but as Larry King’s replacement, you can bet he’ll offer a wide variety of guests from the worlds of politics and show business. And in keeping with CNN’s middle-of-the-road position, he’ll likely have guests from across the political spectrum, something neither Fox News nor MSNBC does very well or very often.

And at 10, unless these rumors about Anderson Cooper itching to work elsewhere turn out to be true, we’ll have ‘AC 360’ continuing as usual – a straight-news show with no detectable political point-of-view, just Cooper “keeping them honest” and all that. It’s a noble effort but one that’s not bearing fruit in the ratings.

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So when all is said and done, where does CNN fit in? In a partisan era such as this, where people are so quick to choose sides when it comes to the political talk shows they choose to watch, can a cable news channel thrive in the middle of the road? Or, to put it another way, is it enough to just offer news? Or does a “news” channel have to transform into an “opinion” channel to survive? Will you be watching CNN’s new shows?

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

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