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New Crossfire isn't the end of cable news, but it probably isn't CNN's salvation, either



Here’s the surprise about CNN’s new Crossfire; it wasn’t the beginning of the end for cable TV news.

But here’s the problem. It doesn’t exactly look like CNN’s savior, either.



From a programming standpoint, it makes a certain kind of sense. Crossfire is a brand name which still carries weight, eight years after CNN’s then top U.S. executive canceled the show, a move which came months after Daily Show host Jon Stewart confronted its hosts on the program for “hurting America.” (check out my column here on why he probably doesn't care that it's back now)

On Monday, the show debuted at 6:30 p.m. as the debate over military strikes in Syria was turning from predictions of failure in congress to speculation about a brokered deal to control Syria’s chemical weapons through the Russians.

Unlike similar shows such as MSNBC’s The Cycle or Fox’s The Five, all of Crossfire’s panelists never appear on the same show. Instead, former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter helmed the inaugural show Monday; co-hosts S.E. Cupp and Van Jones take over at 6:30 tonight. (here's an interesting piece on the undisclosed conflicts some cable TV pundits maintain.)

Gingrich and Cutter faced U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, two legislators on opposite ends of the Syria debate. And while it was interesting to see these two guys face off in a moderated discussion for a half-hour, it left me wondering if Crossfire’s panelists will always be limited to more conventional voices.

To be honest, the past 10 days or so have been filled with legislators arguing over the possibilities and pitfalls of this action, including a Senate subcommittee hearing both Menendez and Paul participated in. I wonder if Crossfire will have the courage to reach beyond the known names on an issue to find people with more interesting, informed points of view who could expand the parameters of debate.

 (A segment with a U.N. weapons inspector who could weigh in on the feasibility of corralling Syria’s chemical armaments might be a good start.)

As someone who had to guest host a show with little training beforehand, I felt for Gingrich and Cutter, who both looked more comfortable when someone else was asking the questions and tossing to commercials.

Gingrich looked like he was trying way too hard to toss off pre-written banter as if it was natural – first rule I follow; if you want something to sound unscripted, don’t script it – while Cutter had a tough time articulating some of the points she was expected to hit, struggling to break into the arguments as they got going (was interesting to note how guests seemed more willing to stop talking when Gingrich opened his mouth).

I also know from experience, one of the toughest things to do on TV is to break into a well-flowing argument when you need to turn to a commercial break. So I’m not surprised Crossfire’s neophyte hosts also struggled a bit with this; I’d also suggest having the confidence to let guests express themselves, even in segments where the hosts are supposed to challenge the guests more directly.

After all, the focus of the show is putting the guests in the "Crossfire."  

As you might expect, the best stuff came from the guests – two guys who have hashed out their positions on these issues in countless, shorter debate segments on all the cable channels. And evenhandedness of their arguments simply further underscored how few good answers there are in the situation in Syria.

The program closed with a segment titled “cease fire,” in which both Cutter and Gingrich agreed on something pretty obvious – that the president was facing an uphill climb to convince the country that military strikes in Syria make sense.

Here again, Crossfire could have benefited from less scripting. Both Cutter and Gingrich seemed to be reading their responses off a teleprompter or cards. Better to say whatever your points are in your own words and have an actual conversation with your co-host.

I’m betting they’ll improve as the weeks progress (Jones is lucky; he gets to debut tonight with Cupp, a veteran of shows on MSNBC and Fox, as his wingman. Or wingwoman.)

But unless Crossfire can find a way to move beyond distilling the debates we’re already seeing on every other cable channel in every other daypart, it’s not going to do much for CNN beyond joining the long list of decent ideas that failed to move the needle.

[Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 10:46am]


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