CNN’s Reinvention: ‘I just hope they don’t go for some young, hip, king of snark’

By Gail Shister 

Why did CNN hire disgraced ex-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker for its new 8 p.m. show?

“Apparently Madoff wasn’t available,” deadpans CNN exile Aaron Brown (Class of ’05), king of the caustic soundbite.

Brown, the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at Arizona State, labels CNN’s return to opinion-driven programming at 8 p.m. as “a ratings play, pure and simple… I don’t really believe [it] will accomplish a thing but that is just me.”

Depending on how CNN fills the 9 p.m. slot — now in play following Larry King‘s announcement last week that he’s stepping down — the struggling network can “redefine its concept,” according to Brown. “They have to be less boring and more compelling.”

Like Brown, many believe CNN must reinvent itself in prime time in order to staunch hemorrhaging ratings. Some, like Syracuse University pop culture expert Bob Thompson, say the network “has already cried ‘uncle'” on its down-the-middle mission.

At 9 p.m., there are two obvious options — hire a younger, hipper, glitzier host or ditch the somnolent chat format in favor of a faster-paced, multi-guest/topic show.

“Long-form interview shows like King’s for a general audience are an anachronism,” says network-news analyst Andrew Tyndall. “The interview shows that work now have a more narrow subject matter – usually politics or a political slant.”

True enough, unless CNN can wrangle CBS’s Katie Couric, who’s keeping her options open.

Bodog Online Sportsbook currently lists her as the 2-1 co-favorite (with Piers Morgan). Face it, if she wants it, it’s hers. Couric would kill at 9 p.m. Game over.

Tyndall’s dark horse is ABC White House ace Jake Tapper, passed over for “This Week” by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. Quick reality check: Tapper’s contract isn’t up until 2012.

Tapper “was shafted by ABC,” says Tyndall. “It would be good musical chairs – he goes to CNN, Amanapour goes to ABC. CNN wins in that trade.

“Of all the mainstream TV journalists at the moment, Tapper is most in tune with how to combine old-fashioned journalism with new media social networking and online reporting.”

Marc Berman, senior TV analyst for Media Week, argues that CNN should keep King’s format intact, “no if’s, and’s or but’s.” Tinkering with such an entrenched foundation would alienate core, older viewers. (See Couric, Katie.)

“This is CNN,” Berman says. “You’re not going to bring in a whole new audience base. Older viewers are not going to change – they’re watching Larry King for a reason. They want to see people interviewed. That’s what Larry King is, and that’s where it needs to be even after he leaves.”

Syracuse University’s Thompson agrees. “It’s foolish to get rid of that equity at 9. King created the best booking operation in the history of television.”

On the air, however, it’s painfully obvious that King is addled by 21st-century celebs such as Lady Gaga. These days, Thompson, a long-time King fan, watches him “more as comedy, like a piece of Dada art.”

CNN might do better to go with a total unknown, Thompson adds. “I just hope they don’t go for some young, hip, king of snark.”

Regardless, King’s replacement should be another non-political personality, says Brad Adgate, senior vice president, research, at Horizon Media.

With both ends of the political spectrum spoken for by Fox and MSNBC, CNN’s middle-ground approach “hasn’t gotten them much traction,” says Adgate. “You have to get a personality who will generate viewers on slow news nights.”

Clearly, that personality is no longer Larry King. Still, to legions of viewers, his impending departure from nightly TV will leave a deep void.

“I’m going to miss him like I miss Paula Abdul on ‘American Idol,'” Thompson says. “You never know if it’s the night he’s going to lose it.”