- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

On Media

The anxious reinvention of cable news continues. In four weeks, CNN debuts a supersize "Crossfire" meant to take on cheeky prime-time rivals at FOX and MSNBC.

There's new blood and appetite: CNN has brought on Democratic swordsmen James Carville and Paul Begala to thrust and parry with resident conservatives Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson for an expanded hour before a live audience.

"An hour is not enough for me. An hour only scratches the surface of Bush foul-ups and Republican screw-ups. That's enough for a whole 24-hour network," Mr. Begala said yesterday. "But God bless Bush. He provides me an endless supply of good material."

Mr. Carville and Mr. Begala are the "liberal axis of evil," countered Mr. Novak while Mr. Tucker predicted Mr. Begala would undergo a metamorphosis and "be right wing in a year."

For his part, Mr. Carville called his foes "the Prince of Darkness" and "Bow Tie Boy," respectively, and hinted that the show will be more than the old partisan Sturm und Drang.

"It's not going to be just all rat-tat-tat. We're going to try new stuff. And if our audience has half as much fun as I'm going to have, then I'll be happy," Mr. Carville said.

Indeed, "fun" seems to be the operative word here.

Executive producer Sam Feist said the show will be "fun," Washington is "fun" and the debate will be "electric," but not predictable. There will be new graphics and a departure from the old spartan black set, once described as "looking like outer space."

The show itself has held court for almost 20 years, a brash presence with few rivals. But political slugfests have multiplied on other networks in recent years, leaving "Crossfire" with an average 692,000 people a night, and ratings that have dropped about 20 percent in the past two years.

The new and improved version begins on April 1.

"We're not just doing left and right issues. There will be some things Novak and Carville will actually agree on, for instance. And it won't be all politics. We'll get outside the Beltway," Mr. Feist said.

It is a delicate business, however, one that prompted news channels to try ever-changing combinations of personalities and formats in recent months, hoping to woo viewers without compromising journalistic credibility.

It has made great insider theater.

Viewers have followed CNBC's "Clinton apologist" Geraldo Rivera and his jump to Fox News, and wondered if a face lift could convert CNN's "Starr bashing" Greta Van Susteran to a Bush-ie at Fox. The formerly "sexy" Paula Zahn traded Fox for CNN while Connie Chung shucked ABC for CNN.

Bill Press, a six-year "Crossfire" stalwart for the liberal cause, will drop back to a CNN "contributor." Meanwhile, only Nielsen ratings can sort it all out.

Fox News viewership is up 100 percent these days, with the "O'Reilly Factor" and "Fox Report with Shepard Smith" outranking CNN's "Larry King Live" in the top three evening programs, according to Nielsen. Overall, Fox averaged nearly 400,000 more prime-time viewers than CNN during February.

But Fox is still in identity crisis. Though some observers have attributed the gain to newly awakened American tastes for conservative values, Fox News executives have sidled away from being identified as the "conservative network" and insist their "fair and balanced" motto allows the audience "to decide."

*Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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