The departure earlier this month of the puckish bow-tie enthusiast and Crossfire co-host Tucker Carlson from CNN was a surprise to almost no one who keeps abreast of cable news comings and goings.
Gossip about Carlson's ambitions to host his own, nonargumentative show had been circulating on the Internet and in newspapers for weeks.
What did come as a shock was CNN President Jonathan Klein's sudden decision to can the 23-year-old show altogether, publicly endorsing the contention of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart that Crossfire and its bevy of copycat shout shows are, as Stewart likes to say, "hurting America."
Though he hasn't yet made up his mind for certain, Klein said he will likely reduce Crossfire to an occasional segment on Inside Politics, and said the future of Capital Gang as a stand-alone show is also in doubt.
It's a rather dramatic move, considering that Klein took the reins at CNN just over a month ago. Crossfire, with its daily average of 455,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, is one of CNN's most recognizable franchises.
"It's the Mac Daddy Grandpa of all TV shoutfests," said David Bernknopf, a media consultant and former CNN executive. "It is the oldest and one of the most recognizable CNN brands."
Moreover, it was the progenitor for a host of cable-news shows and personalities, from MSNBC's Chris Matthews to virtually all of Fox News Channel's prime-time lineup, that have eaten away at CNN's audience share over the past decade.
Or, as one MSNBC producer put it: "Fox's entire success is an expansion of Crossfire."
`Not a talk network'
Klein sees things differently.
"Frank, spirited discussion has a place as a small element always," he said. "But to devote an entire show to it isn't what CNN is about. We are not a talk network. We are about powerful storytelling and pushing beyond the headlines, and Crossfire doesn't do either of those things."
The public Crossfire-bashing is part of Klein's effort to redefine CNN, in contrast to MSNBC and Fox, as a place for hard news and compelling stories. It is also, his critics say, a thinly veiled attempt to pander to Jon Stewart's audience of self-appointed media critics. (On his show, Stewart reacted to the announcement with puzzlement, saying, "I had no idea that if you want a show canceled, all you have to do is say it out loud.")
After all, CNN has for a quarter of a century defined itself as a hard-news network, and Crossfire's existence on the schedule for 23 of those years had never been viewed as anathema to the network's identity.
"Maybe this was a way to bring some publicity to it," said James Carville, the Crossfire co-host who knows a little something about publicity, of Klein's decision to invoke Stewart.
"I like bickering," Carville said. "I like sniping. I like arguing. I don't even mind a little shouting. In a sense I'm honored that so much of the blame for what's wrong with America can be heaped on us."
"It was a great show," said Pat Buchanan, Carville's ideological nemesis and, with Tom Braden, one of Crossfire's original co-hosts. "If I were CNN, I would not give up the adversarial proceeding, because, just as in a courtroom, you can get the truth out of it. This is an American way of getting at the truth. And it enabled me to run fairly successfully for president twice. I went to New Hampshire and nearly knocked off the sitting president. Tell Jon Stewart to give that a try."
Letting in `fresh air'
As dramatic a gesture as the Crossfire cancellation seems, it is also, given CNN's prime-time performance, a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the proverbial sinking ship.
Fox regularly doubles CNN's audience in prime time, 1.7 million to 880,000 viewers, and CNN was down 19 percent in 2004 compared with 2003. (To keep things in perspective, NBC's Meet the Press gets more than 4 million and The News With Brian Williams gets more than 11 million.) So why mess around with an afternoon show that has been around forever when shows such as NewsNight With Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn Now have failed to live up to expectations in terms of viewers?
"We're looking overall at political coverage," Klein said. "I wanted to create opportunities on the schedule, and this just felt like a good opportunity to swing a window open and let some fresh air in."
Carlson is set to launch his own 9 p.m. EST show on MSNBC.
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