Parker/Spitzer struggles through good intentions and weird moments

CNN's debut of its latest prime-time news magazine show, with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker, was very earnest about trying to be serious and bipartisan. But it hit some jarring notes.

Art Streiber/CNN/AP
Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer host the CNN prime-time show "Parker/Spitzer." )

CNN’s latest gambit to pump up its prime-time ratings – the new hour-long, “Parker/Spitzer” news magazine show – debuted Monday night as something of a gathering of earnest first years at, say, a pretty good law school.

The newbie cohosts – Pulitzer prize-winning conservative columnist Kathleen Parker and New York’s former governor and attorney general, the disgraced Eliot Spitzer – were fitted out for serious business in demure pearls and a sober dark suit. A bunch of newspapers were strewn on the table in front of them – implying more high-mindedness, for sure.

They introduced their show as being about ideas, not irrational table-pounding, an apparent swipe at their competition for the time slot, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann. The next hour was a jumble of good intentions mixed in with some downright weird moments that somebody outside of the show’s programming bubble ought to have vetted.

The opening statements from each probably would have gotten them booted from a courtroom for immediately straying from the show’s stated premise: Ms. Parker knocked Sarah Palin for being too coy with voters and demanded she announce her 2012 intentions. Mr. Spitzer railed against President Obama for allowing the treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to handle the bank bailout, and demanded the president fire the man.

After a talking heads segment, the team brought on Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Warren to deconstruct the new consumer agency she is helping build, as well as explain why she didn’t go through a confirmation hearing. All well and good, if not exactly heart-pounding programming.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin bopped in to pitch his new movie, “The Social Network,” and got to slam both Ms. Palin and the two political parties (“The Democrats may have moved into the center, but the Republicans have moved into a mental institution.”) In one of the show's weird moments, guest Henry Blodget, a former Merrill Lynch insider whom Spitzer successfully prosecuted, came on to trade compliments with the former AG.

That was uncomfortable enough, but in the final segment a roundtable of more talking heads answered three Jay Leno-style questions, the last of which was, "What is your favorite guilty pleasure?"

Ummm. For the record, your honor, (and for those who don’t quite remember what brought Spitzer down,) he resigned after admitting to consorting with prostitutes.

Kathleen Parker niftily took that question for the former prosecutor. His fave? NASCAR, in case you wondered.

Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York, says the biggest problem with all this isn’t that it was too earnest or even too weird, it’s that the overall show just wasn’t very good.

Mr. Thompson applauds the show’s stab at bipartisanship, bringing in two intelligent people from different ends of the political spectrum to thoughtfully dissect the news. But, he says, “there is nothing that says this can’t be really good entertainment at the same time as it upholds good, old-fashioned journalistic values,” which, he adds, CNN has had a history of maintaining. Thompson says Spitzer, the politician of the two, needs to talk less and listen more, and programmers should rely less on gimmicks.

The effort is reminiscent of Katie Couric’s arrival at the helm of the "CBS Evening News," adds Mr. Thompson, when the former NBC morning host tried a passle of half-baked ideas out on the audience, including a cutesy invitation to viewers to help her devise the perfect sign-off for the show. Eventually, he says, the show settled into a program very much like the other two evening news broadcasts.

Between NBC, CBS and ABC, those shows still draw respectable audiences, around 15 million nightly, versus the much smaller numbers of the primetime cable news magazine shows. And CBS’ venerable news magazine program, “60 Minutes,” still ranks high in the ratings, even after decades on the air.

“That show understands that solid news reporting about important issues can be great entertainment,” he points out. In this transitional era from legacy broadcasting to new media such as the Internet and mobile phones, he adds, programmers who remember these lessons are the ones that will survive.

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