Chris Cuomo believes there’s room in the middle
NEW YORK (AP) — Chris Cuomo envisions his new CNN prime-time show as a haven for independent thinkers who want their preconceptions tested. His challenge is finding enough people who want that on a cable news network.
He’s swimming against a strong tide. Fox News Channel and MSNBC are thriving with prime-time programming that appeals to partisans of each side, most emphatically with Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow in the 9 p.m. Eastern time slot where “Cuomo Prime Time” lands Monday.
Cuomo respects the success of his rivals, but believes it reflects a troubling trend.
“What you see is people retreating to their corners — left and right, spreading apart,” he said. “I don’t know where that gets us. I think the pursuit has to be for independent thinking — people who are open, people who are pushing those in power to do things for them, to find common ground and act on it, and to test arguments, not merely go to a place where you get told what you believe and hear an echo.”
The numbers sharply illustrate how many viewers have retreated into tribes during the Trump era.
Fox has long been a favorite of Republican viewers, and the most-watched cable news network overall. During the last three months of 2016, encompassing the presidential election, MSNBC (1.64 million) and CNN (1.57 million) were roughly equivalent in prime-time, weeknight viewership, the Nielsen company said. Fast forward to the first quarter of this year, MSNBC averaged 2.36 million viewers and CNN had 1.16 million.
“The liberal audience was looking for a home and they found it on MSNBC,” said Paul Sweeney, an analyst for Bloomberg.
In May, Hannity averaged 3.13 million viewers and Maddow had 2.6 million, making their shows two of the most popular programs on all of cable. CNN averaged 846,000 viewers in the time slot for the second half of Anderson Cooper’s two-hour show, Nielsen said.
Welcome aboard, Chris!
The market leaders have sharply different shows, most evident in their openings. Maddow’s meticulously constructed, often-meandering lead story is built on reporting about President Donald Trump and his cronies, while Hannity’s is a call to arms for Trump supporters, focused on the day’s talking points. Both are designed to energize partisans.
“I do not do that,” Cuomo said. “I do the opposite. I play against partisan perspective. Instead of telling you what to think, I question what people are telling you to think.
“It’s a very different thing and I believe that the opportunity is that the more people are being pushed into the fringes, the more people are being left out,” said the former ABC newsman and brother of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The independent thinker, the open-minded person doesn’t have anywhere to go. So we are building a home for them.”
The competition will test whether news consumers believe what they say, said Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. People constantly say in surveys that they want news served straight and unslanted.
“Human nature being what it is makes it easier for them to watch things that they already believe,” he said.
CNN doesn’t believe it’s dealing from a position of weakness; in a news-hungry environment, CNN was among cable television’s 10 most popular networks for the fifth month in a row in May. Cuomo’s show is a long-term play for when the superheated partisanship cools down, said Michael Bass, CNN’s executive vice president of programming.
“He has a passion and an energy that is perfect for prime time,” Bass said.
Newsmaking interviews will be a centerpiece of most shows, he said. Cuomo and his producers aren’t afraid to let them run long if the conversations prove productive; a recent interview with Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani went 42 minutes.
Cuomo has been actively lobbying for President Trump to come on his show. Trump, when he does television interviews, is more likely to talk to personalities he deems friendly, primarily on Fox.
“I am surprised the president hasn’t come on, since nobody argues his points as well as he has,” Cuomo said. “He is much better when he is tested than when he is in one of those pastoral interviews.” When tested, “he’s more compelling and more cogent,” he said.
Cuomo will have guests in his New York studio, but isn’t a fan of sprawling panels of pundits that can appear on other CNN shows. “Cuomo Prime Time” won’t just be a political talk show, either: the host will occasionally travel to the sites of major news stories. Like most new programs, it can be expected to evolve, Bass said.