In one sweeping move, the 8 p.m. political talk show “Parker Spitzer” could have turned around CNN’s flailing prime-time ratings, publicly rehabilitated the fallen New York governor Eliot Spitzer, and turned his co-host Kathleen Parker into a television star.
Instead, at the two-month mark, the ratings for CNN’s latest experiment are stagnant. The show has been troubled by backstage tensions that have spilled out in gossip columns and have given rise to speculation — and some wishful thinking among his supporters — that CNN could make Mr. Spitzer the sole host.
CNN executives and the co-hosts flatly ruled out that outcome in interviews last week. Disappointment with the ratings was evident, even as they emphasized that the show was just starting to get its footing.
“We’re creating something that I believe in. I have every confidence that it will be very successful,” said Mr. Spitzer, who resigned the governorship in 2008 after being ensnared in a prostitution scandal.
“Parker Spitzer” amounts to image rehabilitation for Mr. Spitzer, though it has not proved to be much of a platform yet. In its first seven weeks, “Parker Spitzer” averaged only 140,000 viewers ages 25 to 54, a drop of 2,000 from the seven weeks before it started, according to the Nielsen Company. “Countdown,” on at the same time on MSNBC, reaches twice as many people in that demographic, which cable news advertisers covet; “The O’Reilly Factor,” on Fox News, reaches five times as many.
"“I’ve seen tension in my life — conflict, tension, acrimony — and I haven’t seen anything here that comes close to what I’ve seen."
But those two shows started in obscurity, with almost none of the scrutiny that “Parker Spitzer” has endured. Mr. Spitzer and Ms. Parker “launched into the most competitive time on TV, that’s just a fact,” said Bart Feder, a senior vice president at CNN. “That’s a heavy lift. They went into it knowing that. We went into it knowing that, which is why we take it one day at a time.”
In part, the show has been watched carefully because it represents Mr. Spitzer’s return to the public spotlight. But it is also because CNN is adrift, having shed a third of its audience in prime time the last five years.
Making matters even more delicate, Mr. Spitzer was paired with Ms. Parker over the summer by a CNN president, Jonathan Klein, who was dismissed weeks before the program’s Oct. 4 start date. The new executive in charge of CNN, Ken Jautz, is said to be supportive of the program. He declined an interview request.
Now, with Mr. Klein out of the picture, Mr. Spitzer and Ms. Parker, neither of whom had regularly hosted a show before, are learning how to do so in front of its viewers. Neither host was screen-tested before being hired, a fact that later raised eyebrows inside Time Warner, CNN’s parent company.
“It’s absolutely a work in progress,” said Ms. Parker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, in an interview last week.
She denied any intent to leave “Parker Spitzer,” and said she recently signed a two-year lease in New York, having moved from Washington to tape the show. She has also cut back her print duties, to one column a week for the Washington Post Writers Group, from her previous output of two a week.
“Parker Spitzer” is intended to be a nightly news-based conversation about a mix of topics, with a mix of opinions. It pairs Mr. Spitzer, a liberal with a prosecutor’s bent, and Ms. Parker, who calls herself a rational conservative. “We wanted very much to bring a nonpartisan alternative to television viewers,” Ms. Parker said, a wink at the red- and blue-hued shows on Fox News and MSNBC.
The hosts and their guests have had smart, surprising debates about deficit reduction (in a recurring challenge to legislators called “Name Your Cuts”), overseas wars and airport security. But the show has been marred by tensions behind the scenes about the balance between the hosts, especially in recent weeks as the scales have tipped more in Mr. Spitzer’s favor, according to several CNN employees who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared losing their jobs if they spoke publicly.
The tensions spilled into public view last week when the Page Six gossip column in The New York Post said Ms. Parker had stormed off the set in early November. Asked about that claim, Ms. Parker said, “I don’t storm. I saunter.”
She acknowledged that there was some “editorial and political tension,” but cast it as a normal part of television production. “That’s how human beings are made,” she added.
Mr. Spitzer put it this way: “I’ve seen tension in my life — conflict, tension, acrimony — and I haven’t seen anything here that comes close to what I’ve seen.”
There is no doubt that Mr. Spitzer dominates the current iteration of the show, which has been heavy on political and financial news, playing to his strengths. Ms. Parker, in contrast, “can appear decidedly passive, almost meek,” wrote James Rainey, a Los Angeles Times media critic last week, in a column that proposed, “If Parker’s really mad enough to walk off the set, she should turn a little of that animus on her co-host. It would make for livelier discussions, and better TV.”
In the future, Ms. Parker said she expected to have more airtime to talk about the social and cultural issues that she covers in her columns. “We’re definitely going to be mixing it up more,” she said.
In a separate interview, Mr. Spitzer said, “We’ll talk about movies sometimes, sports, we’ll have everything under the sun, but we are clearly a political show.”
To hear him tell it, “Parker Spitzer” is like a courtroom, a place where “smart people can discuss tough issues; go back and forth and challenge each other; probe each other for weaknesses in the argument; and force resolution if possible.”
Some at CNN say they believe that what appear to be problems on “Parker Spitzer” are merely a sign of CNN’s broader identity crisis. The program that precedes it at 7 p.m., a political newscast called “John King USA,” is rated even lower. Barring a shake-up, both shows will lead into “Piers Morgan Tonight,” the interview show that will replace “Larry King Live” in mid-January.
“Campbell Brown,” a traditional newscast that was on at 8 p.m. until July, averaged 152,000 viewers in the demographic on any given day this year.
Mr. Feder indicated no second-guessing about the shift from news to views at 8 p.m. “One of the things we want to do,” he said, “is get more diversity of opinion on our air, and still maintain our position as a nonpartisan news network.”