Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Next on CNN...

Ross Douthat, remarking on the declining fortunes of CNN in his latest column, pinpoints a fatal turning point in October of 2004 that led to the news channel's misfortune - the cancellation of "Crossfire" after a scathing appearance by "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who essentially mocked the program off the air. "Crossfire" was a pundit show, a point-counterpoint debate program that pitted liberal and conservative commentators against each other on a variety of topics, but tilted heavily toward conservative host Tucker Carlson in its final years.

Douthat posits that the resulting punditry vacuum is responsible for CNN's ratings decline, as FOX News and MSNBC have built their audiences on partisan personalities like Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann. CNN has its own roster of stars, like Larry King and Anderson Cooper, but they're far more restrained than their competitors. Douthat goes so far as to call for the resurrection of "Crossfire," but in a form that's closer to "The Daily Show" to allow for more measured political discourse. I think this is a mistake.

First, "Crossfire" needs to stay dead, because anything resembling decent discourse is not going to happen with a show that's so heavily premised on being adversarial, with clearly delineated liberal and conservative sides. "Crossfire" and "The Daily Show" are on opposite ends of the punditry spectrum, and though Stewart leans to the left, his show is built on deflating the blowhards, not enabling them. Second, as FOX News has already learned, aping "The Daily Show" is not as easy as it looks. If CNN wants to build their own version, they have their work cut out for them. They'd be much better off just acquiring the "Daily Show" that already exists.

And well, why not? If Jon Stewart is responsible for felling the network, maybe he can save it too. An international version of "The Daily Show" already follows CNN programming in several overseas markets. Networks have poached major shows from each other before, most notably when Lifetime snatched "Project Runway" from Bravo. Comedy Central has built its schedule around the show, playing it three to five times around the clock on weekdays, but "The Daily Show" still sticks out like a sore thumb on a schedule that is otherwise chock full of standup specials, South Park reruns, and the often surreal broadcast versions of raunchy teen sex films.

I think that moving networks would actually be pretty healthy for "The Daily Show" and for Jon Stewart especially. Though extremely popular and prominent, his star could rise even higher if given the room to grow. There's been speculation about his future plans for years now. He's been brought up as a potential candidate for a late night desk job at a major network, but never very seriously. Forays into hosting duties of gala events such as the Academy Awards have produced mixed results. But more to the point, Stewart doesn't seem to want to go anywhere. He clearly loves the hosting gig on the "The Daily Show" and having the ability to tackle serious subject matter in a format that no one else has been able to duplicate. But I think he's got more in him.

Though Comedy Central has afforded "The Daily Show" the environment to build up its clout as a major independent voice in the media landscape, I'd love to see what would happen if the show was positioned directly in competition with the likes of Bill O'Reilly and the other pundit shows. A common defense used by FOX News when accused of egregiously biased news coverage is that their network's most vehement commentary comes from programming that's supposed to be for entertainment purposes only. So why not put a real, straightforward entertainment show up against them? CNN is the only major cable news network left that can make any claims to political neutrality with a straight face, so their stars and stripes are already pretty well aligned with Stewart & Co.

Clearly this is a long shot, but you get the point. I understand if CNN needs to inject a dose of entertainment into its programming in order to compete with FOX and MSNBC. But this does not mean that they're limited to doing what the other two are doing or going back to the way things were before. There are other options besides throwing more demagogues at us and adding to the already fairly unbearable din. If CNN must to go down the road of news entertainment absurdity, why not just go the whole way, and summon the most absurd of them all - Stephen Colbert? He and Stewart may not be professional journalists, but at least they're professional entertainers, which is more than most of the other guys can say.

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