DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The news network CNN has recently seen its ratings during primetime hit record lows. The company is still making money, thanks to its international presence, but here in the United States, viewers are increasingly turning to more opinionated competitors: MSNBC and Fox News. At the end of the year, the president of CNN Worldwide is going to step down. And TV critic Eric Deggans sees this as a big opportunity for CNN to shake things up.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Over the years, CNN has built a worldwide reputation on reliable coverage of big, breaking news.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCASTS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That a plane has crashed into one of the towers.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Air raid sirens are going off in Baghdad.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There is a levy that has been breached.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We're watching a live tsunami hit Japan.
DEGGANS: But when tsunamis and, say, the Arab Spring aren't at hand, CNN has a tough time competing with the fireworks on politically partisan rivals, like this fight between Fox News Channel stars Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
GERALDO RIVERA: ...career on the backs of illegal aliens. Let's not go there.
BILL O'REILLY: Look, you listen to me, I'll listen to you.
RIVERA: What? Are they going to start shooting illegal aliens?
DEGGANS: Now there's buzz the channel is considering new, entertainment-oriented, non-fiction shows. Just don't call them reality TV. And I say one thing: It's about time. To be sure, the notion of anything close to a Kardashian getting anywhere near CNN sounds horrific.
OK, let's be honest. Given TV's usual success rate, some of these shows will be horrific. But they're also the painful path of experimentation CNN must travel to find a new voice. Look how well it worked for rival MSNBC and its onetime star, Keith Olbermann.
(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)
KEITH OLBERMANN: This is not typically a newscast of commentary. I can recall...
DEGGANS: Keith Olbermann not making commentary? That sounds like an incredible statement today. But that's Olbermann back in 2005, a year before he would begin his pointed special comment segments on MSNBC, taking right-wing Republicans to task.
(SOUNDBITE OF MSNBC BROADCAST)
OLBERMANN: The man who sees absolutes where all other men see nuances and shades of meaning is either a prophet or a quack.
DEGGANS: It's tough to remember. Later, it morphed into a more political program, as the anchor's passions changed and ratings followed. And Olbermann came at the end of a long road for MSNBC. For years, they tried shows by Phil Donahue, Michael Savage and Jesse "The Body" Ventura. They kept lobbing ideas until Olbermann developed a marketable, liberal voice that became MSNBC's brand.
These days, CNN has the perfect place in its schedule to try similar experiments. Since they already repeat Anderson Cooper's show at 10 p.m., why not use that timeslot as a prime time laboratory for unusual, even unreliable ideas that might revitalize its voice? Of course, one recent CNN experiment didn't turn out so well. That's former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, hired in a hurry back in 2010.
(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: The new 8 o'clock on CNN, "Parker Spitzer," weeknights on CNN.
DEGGANS: Spitzer came with too many problems: He hadn't been on the channel much before, was damaged by a prostitution scandal, and debuted at 8 p.m. in the most competitive timeslot on cable TV. He lasted less than a year. But listen, CNN, don't wig out because you had one bad experience. If you're trying hard, there'll be lots of those to come. If all else fails, I hear there's a certain TV critic in Florida who has a few ideas.
GREENE: And that TV critic would be Eric Deggans of the Tampa Bay Times.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.