Since I don’t watch a lot of talking-head television, I certainly hadn’t noticed that Crossfire went off the air a month ago. The lack of buzz over its absence suggests few others noticed it, either. TV Newser reports that CNN’s obsessive coverage of the Malaysia Air Flight 370 disappearance knocked it out of the schedule, but that CNN insists it will return:
Today marks one month since “Crossfire” last aired. But it’s not for a lack of political news: the Affordable Care Act sign-up deadline, which lends itself to fiery debate, came and went; there have been primaries in several states leading up to the 2014 midterms, not to mention the jockeying for 2016, and then there’s the politics of foreign policy: Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East and beyond.
A CNN spokesperson tells TVNewser the 6:30pmET show “will remain on hiatus this week, but will be back soon.”
Jordan Chariton writes that “CNN clearly sees value in the brand,” but that’s a little difficult to square with its programming decisions. Their Flight 370 coverage initially pre-empted it, which made sense when the story was still generating headlines every few minutes. It’s been weeks since that’s been the case, though; right now, it’s a story that normal news shows could easily handle, with a chyron for anything else significant. The issues in Ukraine are a lot more volatile and fluid, and lend themselves a lot more to the kind of breathless breaking-news coverage that would pre-empt a program that had “value in the brand.”
Chariton later points out that the value has sharply declined since Crossfire’s launch:
From its first full month in October to its last two weeks on-air, the show lost -39% of its total viewer audience and lost -42% in the news demo. “Crossfire’s” replacement, a full-hour of “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer,” has drawn strong ratings over the past few weeks, and twice in March was the most-watched cable news show in the demo at 6pmET.
News performs better at a traditional news hour than four people yelling at each other about politics? That doesn’t seem like such a shock. If so, then the decision to sideline Crossfire makes sense. Besides, with the departure of Piers Morgan, CNN has a perfect slot for a political talking-head show like Crossfire at 9 ET. Why not just move it to prime time? Does CNN have a more intriguing host in mind? Not exactly, as the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple discovered in his inbox:
Inbox: At 10 p.m., CNN will go with "CNN Tonight," a news show with rotating hosts.
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) April 10, 2014
As part of the announcement, the network is bringing Mike Rowe (Dirty Jobs) back to series television, in a new program called Somebody’s Gotta Do It. In addition, proven television personalities John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) and Lisa Ling (Our America with Lisa Ling) will also join CNN, with their own new, original series. CNN will also premiere The Jesus Code, which will take viewers on a forensic and archaeological journey through the Bible. And CNN announced that the ten-part original series The Sixties, from Playtone and acclaimed producers Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, will premiere in late May. The network also announced that its Peabody and Emmy-award winning hit Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown has been picked up for an additional four cycles in 2015 and 2016 and its critically acclaimed series Morgan Spurlock Inside Man has been renewed for another cycle in 2015. CNN has also entered into a development deal with the producers of Chicagoland to tell the story of another great American city.
All of those original series, plus a weekly documentary from CNN’s in-house documentary unit, will air at 9pm, ET beginning this summer.
In making the announcement at CNN’s Upfront presentation in New York City, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker said, “The best journalism is, at its core, great storytelling. We are so pleased to welcome some of the finest storytellers in the business to CNN, to join the award-winning team of world class journalists and storytellers who have made CNN the home to this kind of quality programming for more than 30 years. The seamless integration of original series and live news coverage, which has been on display the last two months, is the foundation of our new primetime lineup.”
That primetime lineup will begin with Erin Burnett Outfront at 7pm ET, followed by Anderson Cooper 360 at 8pm ET. The 9pm, ET hour will be the new home of CNN’s Original Series, CNN Films and the network’s in-house produced documentaries like Dr Sanjay Gupta’s Weed and Anderson’s Cooper’s The Survivor Diaries. Over the last year, CNN’s four most-watched series have been Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, Morgan Spurlock Inside Man, Chicagoland and Death Row Stories. At 10pm, ET CNN will debut a one-hour news program called CNN Tonight, a live hour of the day’s biggest stories, with rotating hosts anchoring the program.
So CNN has two hours of prime-time programming to fill … and Crossfire won’t go into either one, even though that’s talking-head time on its competitors. For two solid hours, CNN will offer no consistent anchor to brand its broadcast, instead hoping that an eclectic mix of specials, documentaries, and rotating presenters will create brand loyalty.
We’ll see, but this looks less like brave innovation in programming and more like an admission that CNN’s Jeff Zucker simply has no other options — even with Crossfire on the bench.