Postmortem

07.07.11

Spitzer Gets the Boot

Plagued by chronically weak ratings, miserable reviews, a toxic relationship with his co-host, and an unshakeable whiff of scandal, the ex-governor signed off CNN for good Wednesday. Lloyd Grove on an adventure in cable that seemed snake-bit from the get-go.

Eliot Spitzer ended his failed experiment as a prime-time television personality Wednesday night with a quotation from another former New York governor. He signed off his final installment of CNN’s In the Arena with an excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Man in the Arena.”

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,” the beanpole-ish, balding Spitzer declaimed after donning some black-framed reading glasses. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes up short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Spitzer, to be sure, was risking an invidious comparison. Like Roosevelt, another ex-lawman who strove early in his career to stamp out corruption, his time as governor was cut short in the middle of his first term. But unlike T.R., who departed Albany triumphantly to become vice president and then president of the United States, Spitzer was forced to resign in disgrace, amid a shocking prostitution scandal in March 2008, and then spent many feverish months trying to rehabilitate himself as a public figure.

Gallery: 5 Worst Spitzer Moments

On Wednesday morning, much to his surprise, the 52-year-old Spitzer got the hook from CNN/U.S. executive Ken Jautz, who announced In the Arena’s cancellation as part of a complete overhaul of CNN’s troubled prime-time schedule. The 8 p.m. slot will be filled by Anderson Cooper starting in August, and Erin Burnett, a new recruit from CNBC, will launch a 7 p.m. show in September. John King will be bumped out of prime time to 6 p.m. And loquacious Brit Piers Morgan, whose 9 p.m. interview show has actually improved on the waning end-stage ratings of his predecessor Larry King, will remain in place. Industry insiders said Wednesday that Jautz probably is playing the modest cards in his hand as well as anyone could.

“We are in discussions with Eliot Spitzer about an alternative role,” Jautz revealed in a company memo—although by Wednesday afternoon, as lawyers for both sides negotiated a severance agreement, it was clear that Spitzer had no intention of sticking around in any capacity.

“We engaged serious people in conversations about national and global issues in a way that was informative and challenging,” Spitzer said in his own statement distributed by his personal publicist. “I believe that we provided diverse and valuable perspectives during the show’s tenure. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at CNN.” The former governor declined, through his publicist, to offer further comment on his termination.

Spitzer’s adventure in cable seemed snake-bit from the get-go. After dipping his toe in the television waters at MSNBC, where during much of 2010 he appeared as a daytime commentator on financial and legal issues and occasionally filled in for afternoon host Dylan Ratigan, Spitzer was lured to CNN by network head Jonathan Klein, who, against the advice of many, believed this broadcasting novice could carry his own show in CNN’s problematic 8 p.m. time slot.

“Thanks for watching,” he added bleakly Wednesday night before the screen went dark.

By the time the show premiered in October, Klein had been fired and replaced by Jautz. It was initially titled Parker Spitzer because Klein’s superiors in Atlanta had decided to give the Democratic ex-guv second billing to another untested television personality, conservative newspaper columnist Kathleen Parker—and Spitzer’s rabbi, Klein, wasn’t around to hold his hand. Reviews were miserable—The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley described the co-hosts’ on-camera chemistry as “a queasy whiff of sulfur”—and the show was plagued by gossip column items (accurate, as it turned out) about extreme off-camera tensions between the two headliners.

By late February, Parker was sent packing, and the program was reconstituted into its final form, with Spitzer sharing airtime with Will Cain and E.D. Hill, whose career at Fox News flamed out during the 2008 presidential campaign after she wondered aloud if one of Barack and Michelle Obama’s hand-touching gestures was a “terrorist fist jab.”

The ex-guv’s regular television gig provoked instant public controversy, but perhaps even more troublesome, it also irked several unnamed board members of CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, who never forgave Spitzer for his tenure as New York’s hard-charging state attorney general. Nicknamed the “Sheriff of Wall Street” for his aggressive prosecutions of stockbrokers and financiers—some of them friends and acquaintances of Time Warner’s board—Spitzer had made powerful enemies. “It didn’t have much of an effect on his show, but it certainly didn’t help,” a highly placed industry insider told me Wednesday.

For his swan song, Spitzer defiantly avoided the Casey Anthony verdict—or at least the bloody-raw meal being served up by Nancy Grace, his wildly successful 8 p.m. competitor on CNN’s tabloidy sister network HLN—and instead conducted a series of high-minded interviews with Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz (who offered a legalistic analysis of the Anthony case), historian Simon Schama, foreign-policy connoisseur Fareed Zakaria, public-policy guru David Gergen, and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy. “It’s a joy to have you here,” he kept telling his erudite guests.

It is unclear when, or even if, Spitzer’s television career will resume. One person close to him speculated that the non-compete clause of his severance package will require him to stay off TV for 60 days. “But I don’t know if anyone will touch him,” a knowledgeable industry insider told me. “It was crazy for him to try and come back to public life so quickly, in such a high-profile situation, so soon after his scandal. He should have bided his time and done it gradually.”