CNN pins hopes on new show with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker


Reporting from New York — Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker want to clear up something from the outset: They have no intention of hosting a predictable political debate show.

Their new, as-of-yet-untitled roundtable program, which premieres on CNN this fall in the key 8 p.m. ET slot, will tackle a broad range of topics in a forum more akin to a conversation than the now-defunct “Crossfire,” Parker said Wednesday.

“It’s going to be what people talk about at their kitchen table every day,” Spitzer added.

Like polka dots.

Before jumping on the phone with The Times, the duo said they had been discussing the former New York governor’s desire to paint his barn with polka dots, a notion that does not thrill his wife.

“I’m a big fan of polka dots,” Spitzer said.

“Stationary confetti!” quipped Parker.

Other topics they said they would have covered on a show Wednesday: the World Cup and the fate of Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal.

“It’s going to be the blog approach,” said Parker, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group, who won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary this year.

CNN may be taking a risk in pairing the conservative pundit and longtime Democratic politician, who resigned from office in 2008 amid revelations that he frequented a high-priced call-girl ring. But after taking a beating over its diminished prime-time ratings, the network is seeking a game-changing move to bring back viewers.

Launching a roundtable program is a tacit admission that CNN has been unable to gain traction with a straight newscast at 8 p.m. Current anchor Campbell Brown announced in May that she would be leaving because, she said with rare candor, “the simple fact is that not enough people want to watch my program.” Brown was the third news anchor in that time slot since 2002.

The new show takes a page from CNN’s old playbook: The pairing of two political opposites was the format of “Crossfire,” the long-running debate program that CNN / U.S. President Jon Klein cancelled in 2005, saying the network wanted to move away from “head-butting debate shows.” At the time, Klein said he agreed with comedian Jon Stewart’s assertion that the show “was hurting America,” adding that viewers were hungry for information, not opinion.

But faced with a dwindling audience, network executives concluded that they needed to inject more forceful opinions into the lineup to compete with the strong personalities on rivals Fox News and MSNBC. A point-counterpoint format gives the network an avenue to do so while still maintaining that it is committed to nonpartisan journalism.

In an interview, Klein insisted that the new show will have a “completely different approach” than “Crossfire.”

“Yes, it involves two people who come at life and issues from different backgrounds,” he said. “But the point isn’t to stage a steel-cage match with predictable roles and the predictable drumbeat of noise and shouting. This is meant to be a really energizing and lively discussion of what’s going on in the world.”

When pressed about what the difference was, Klein responded: “You’ll have to watch the show and see.”

The network president said that when news breaks during the 8 p.m. hour, CNN’s news anchors and reporters will fill in and cover the story.

For their part, Parker and Spitzer, who didn’t know each other until they began discussions with the network, said they would eschew rigid ideological stances.

“Everyone can go and find a show that will validate what they believe,” Parker said. “We’re going to come in with, ‘Let’s find out what this means.’ We might even change our minds in the course of a program.”

Landing a prime-time cable news show is remarkable turn of events for Spitzer, whose prostitution scandal shocked even the jaded denizens of New York. But after lying low for less than a year, he reemerged onto the public stage as a prolific commentator. He recently served as a substitute anchor on MSNBC, which was also considering him for an on-air role.

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said that while Spitzer’s return to the spotlight was fast, she believes he is less toxic than other public figures felled by sex scandals because he has not behaved hypocritically.

“It’s clearly going to be an issue for him, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, because if his actions are in line with his apology, then I don’t see women holding it against him forever,” O'Neill said.

For his part, the former governor said he has made it his mission “to work very hard, atone for what I have done, not hide it or deny it, march forward and try to contribute.”

Klein said he’s confident that Spitzer is not just using the television show as a springboard to run for office again. He said the former governor repeatedly volunteered that he has no plans to do so.

Parker is less well-known but gained substantial attention during the 2008 election when she called on then- GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to leave the ticket, writing that she was “clearly out of her league.” Her column unleashed a fierce debate about the qualifications of the Alaska governor and attacks on Parker for turning on a fellow conservative. This year, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for “her perceptive, often witty columns on an array of political and moral issues,” according to the board’s citation.