Eliot Spitzer, Kathleen Parker aim for ideological center
Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker's audience: the people who would feel more comfortable at Jon Stewart's million moderate march than watching Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel or Keith Olbermann on MSNBC.
During a rehearsal for his CNN prime-time show that bows Monday, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer talks about how the country's politics are driven by the small percentage of Americans on each ideological extreme. The majority in the middle often go unheard.
He could just as easily be talking about the audience "Parker Spitzer" hopes to reach: the people who would feel more comfortable at Jon Stewart's million moderate march than watching Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel or Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, and are maddeningly elusive for CNN unless a big story is breaking.
Spitzer falls back on a political term: expanding the base.
"We've always believed that both O'Reilly and Olbermann are really good shows," he said. "Look at the numbers and what they do. We're not out to criticize or diminish them. The question is, is there room for something different?"
CNN will soon find out. The show that teams Spitzer with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker lands in cable news' most unforgiving time slot (8 p.m. ET). Two television novices (one with a giant, personal blot on his record) are working to fuse a mixture of enlightenment and entertainment.
They sat in a New York studio last week testing ideas. Each show will open with topical editorials by both hosts. A test segment called "The Clash" brought in ideological opposites from The Nation and National Review to talk economic policy, a quicker-moving and less formulaic version of "Crossfire."
A cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton was placed on a seat for a lighthearted feature on Americans missing the former president, especially when contrasted with the present one.
"One of my friends says, 'I miss him like an old boyfriend,'" Parker said. "Another one says he was an old boyfriend."
Parker places a jewel-encrusted bell on the table the hosts share, calling it Spitzer's "pause button." She's conscious that he sometimes talks at breakneck speed and lets his inner wonk take over. "People are reaching for their remote controls, I can feel it," she said during the rehearsal when Spitzer and a guest argued too long over whether World War II was an economic stimulus plan.
She had never met Spitzer before CNN brought them together for some meetings, and the two now share a quick-witted repartee.
The man who conceived the show, CNN U.S. president Jon Klein, was fired just 10 days before the premiere. The company's top management immediately reached out to reassure the hosts that the move didn't change CNN's support for "Parker Spitzer."
CNN hopes viewers, particularly women, look beyond Spitzer's political fall from grace, when he resigned as governor in 2007 after being caught using prostitutes.
Some won't be able to, said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive now teaching journalism at Stony Brook University. But others will be more forgiving and willing to listen to what he has to say, she said.
"You deal with it like you deal with anything else," Spitzer said. "You try to be forthright, say I understand it. You will react as it's appropriate. ... And I'll try to persuade you that this is a show worth listening to."
It has certainly been discussed internally and, if Spitzer happens to be talking about another personal political scandal, he won't shy away from acknowledging his own failings, said Liza McGuirk, the show's executive producer.
"I think Americans like to forgive people," Parker said. "Eliot's not the first person to trip on that particular fault line. He's been forthright and honest, and he and his family have moved through it."
For both hosts, some nerves are evident as they attempt jobs they haven't done before, like when they race through a script during rehearsal. They've both spent plenty of time in front of cameras, but being a host is different, Spitzer said.
"Yes," Parker said. "He has to be nice to our guests."
"We have to let our guests speak," Spitzer said.
"That's a problem for you rather than me," replied Parker, whose South Carolina accent is a few speeds slower than her on-air partner.
They loosely fit conservative-liberal roles, but say their opinions will occasionally surprise viewers. She's long heard criticism that she's not conservative enough. In the past month, she's written an "open letter to Muslims" that said most Americans were appalled by a Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Quran. Other columns said charges that President Barack Obama is an anti-colonialist are poppycock and said Fox's Glenn Beck "is messianic and betrays the grandiosity of the addict."
"I'm a conservative but not an ideologue," she said. "There are certain people on the right who will always turn on you if you think outside of the box and that's part of the problem the Republican Party is having right now."
Those columns bring her hundreds of letters from people thanking her, saying they rarely hear from calm, rational voices, she said.
"I just think there's an atmosphere out there for what we bring to the table," she said.