In Depth

John King Scrambles to Ready a CNN Primetime Show

By Elizabeth Jensen

CNN’s John King has only had his own show on the network, the four-hour Sunday morning “State of the Union,” since early this year. But sometime next January, the veteran political reporter is being handed one of the news network’s plum assignments: The anchor spot weekdays at 7 p.m., where he will head up a new primetime political program.

He got the anchor slot when previous occupant Lou Dobbs, who had been at CNN for nearly three decades, abruptly quit the network on Nov. 11, after clashing with its management over his outspoken views on, among other issues, illegal immigration and whether President Obama has a valid birth certificate (which CNN reported earlier that he did.) Dobbs, an independent, is now talking about running for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2012, and using that as a stepping stone for a later Presidential run.

King, who joined the network in 1997 after 12 years at the Associated Press, insisted that there had been no advance planning at the network for the transition, which is why the change won’t take place until after the New Year. “We’re taking some breathing space to think of what do we want to do here,” he said. But with entrenched competition from Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, who anchors a straightforward newscast, and MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews,” a political talk show, King is unlikely to have an easy time of it.

After a heady election year in 2008, with soaring ratings, CNN has been struggling against the competition, seeing a primetime ratings drop in October to fourth place in the network’s target demographic of 25-to-54-year-olds, behind even sister network HLN (formerly Headline News.) For the moment, viewers appear to prefer opinion in the evening, over CNN’s straight news and analysis approach.

CNN has noted that it wins when total day ratings are counted and that it has no intention of deviating from its approach. Indeed, with the choice of King to replace Dobbs, “We’re really doubling down,” Jon Klein, the president of CNN/U.S., told The New York Times. In a press release announcing the new show, CNN said it would be a “definitive political hour that goes well beyond the surface of the day’s top stories to provide in-depth analysis and context to key political movements in Washington and across the nation.”

King said in an interview from on the road in Little Rock, Ark., that his new show “will build on some things we know that work, and create some new things.” The giant touch-screen “Magic Wall” that became his trademark for explaining election results during the 2008 political campaign is one of the elements that will make the transition.

While ideas are still being kicked around, he said, “one thing I do know is I want it to be constructive and contextual, to peel back some of the big questions people have,” whether about what to do with the economy, or what’s really in the health bill or “who are the Taliban.” The debate can be “provocative,” he said, but it won’t be led by an anchor who’s an advocate for one side or the other.
Indeed, asked his view on immigration, King called it “a powerful issue in our country, an issue we need to cover. It’s a gut-wrenching and divisive issue.” Then, after a beat, he added: “We will cover it. And many, many, many, many, many, many, many other issues.”

“People always say you can’t do policy on television, I just don’t buy that,” King said. But he does get a constant complaint from viewers that, while they are interested in issues, “‘you guys don’t speak our language.’ The defining challenge, I believe, to anybody in our business right now is relevance. People are in a hurry, and they have so many options. They don’t want their time wasted. They want you to talk about things they care about and to do it in their language.”

That language won’t be the “shouting” that some of his competitors employ, he added. Those shows can be “fun to watch,” he said, “but they’re not newscasts.”

In taking on the new program, King will have to give up Sundays, where his program has been gaining traction. “I hope to carry the passion over to five nights a week,” he said.

He will also have to give up many of his days on the road, a hard transition for a former national political reporter. Even for the Sunday show he has traveled to almost all the states in his 11 months on the job — Arkansas was his 45th — and the need to spend more time in Washington, D.C., will be a challenge, he said.

“One of the things I’m struggling with is how do I reach out and keep in touch with people when I can’t do it myself as much,” he said, adding that, by getting out Washington, he makes sure he’s asking the questions that viewers want to hear.