Is There Still Room for Soledad O’Brien at CNN?

Chris Cuomo’s entree into the network’s morning slot sparks speculation over her future at the network.

Soledad O’Brien was overjoyed when she heard the news that her former boss at NBC would become her new boss at CNN. “To me, Jeff Zucker is synonymous with winning,” she told TVNewser back in December. “He’s an incredible news executive. I want to be on a team that strategizes how to win.”

Unfortunately for O’Brien, it’s unclear whether she’ll be picked for that team. Less than two weeks after his first official day as president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker announced a revamping of the cable news network’s management and programming, including a reshuffling of the morning lineup. It wasn’t much of a surprise that the man responsible for making NBC’s Today show the most watched TV news show (formerly) would make mornings one of his first priorities at his new gig. He even foreshadowed his plans for a shake-up during a conference call with media reporters back in November.

But Monday’s announcement that Chris Cuomo, co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20, would be teaming up with CNN evening anchor Erin Burnett to take over O’Brien’s morning slot has left her fans—and critics—wondering, what about Soledad?

There’s no question that bumping O’Brien’s Starting Point was a ratings-based move. Last Thursday The New York Times noted that CNN’s 6 a.m.–to–9 a.m. slot, which includes both Starting Point and the earlier Early Start, attracted a mere 220,000 viewers. MSNBC’s Morning Joe scored more than twice that, with 446,000 viewers. Fox & Friends grabbed a whopping 1.2 million. In 2012 Starting Point averaged only 234,000 viewers.

Enter Chris Cuomo. Rumored to be unhappy with his 20/20 post since losing out as the host of Good Morning America in 2009, Cuomo seems to be exactly the sort of news personality Zucker wants to start the day at CNN.

“Chris Cuomo comes from a broadcast background. His face is more recognizable to people than Soledad’s,” says TVNewser senior editor Alex Weprin. “He’s not Matt Lauer or George Stephanopoulos, but in terms of name recognition he’s a good hire on CNN’s part.”

But where does that leave O’Brien? So far, CNN has been tight-lipped on her future—other than an ominous email from a spokesman stating simply that “Soledad is very important to the network, and we’re discussing various options with her.” This vague nonreassurance has given speculators no choice but to speculate.

“The last time I read a statement about a morning-show anchor talking to the network about their options, it was Erica Hill at CBS, and then she ended up leaving,” Weprin says, pointing out that the public shaming CNN has received from O’Brien fans—mostly on Twitter—may be misleading. “I think that when a show is doing well, the people that love it keep quiet, for the most part. But when something happens to a show, regardless of what kind it is, people who like it go and complain on social media,” says Weprin. “I’m sure the show had loyal viewers, there may have even been thousands of them. But even if there were just 5,000 people who watched and were passionate about it on social media, in the grand scheme of things that’s not going to make a dent in the ratings.”

Ratings aside, Mediaite senior editor Andrew Kirell calls claims that CNN is dumping O’Brien “absurd.”

“They’re obviously going to keep her,” Kirell says, predicting that O’Brien will swap with Burnett for the 7 p.m. slot. “It’s become kind of clear that she is a huge asset to the network, having made her mark as being aggressive but not obnoxious. She’s fair but she goes after [her interviewees], which I think makes for better opinion programming in primetime.”

Beyond the O’Brien question, what remains to be seen is whether a Zucker-led CNN can compete on the same level as its cable-news counterparts.

“It would be interesting to see if CNN could carve out a niche between cable and broadcast,” says Kirell. “MSNBC and Fox have the two corners of the political spectrum locked down.” If they’re going to compete for real, he suggests, CNN has to “play money ball, to find a demographic that has yet to truly be captured.” In the noisy, opinionated world of partisan cable news, CNN has always fallen somewhere in the middle—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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“CNN’s ratings are great when there is a major news event, like the conventions or the inauguration. That sends a message that clearly people trust CNN for something beyond partisan bickering,” Kirell notes. “That’s a reputation that will follow them in the future—and something they should try to exploit a little more.”