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CNN Made Primetime Panels Popular. Chris Cuomo Hopes to Avoid Them

Tough news for Rick Santorum, Joan Walsh, Jack Kingston and the dozens of CNN analysts and contributors who often hold forth during the network’s primetime “panel” discussions: Chris Cuomo may have little time for you.

When Cuomo launches a new CNN show in primetime next week, he intends to rely largely on one-on-one interviews with newsmakers, and less on the large and often unruly roundtables that have become a staple on the Time Warner-owned network’s air since before the 2016 election. Doing so, he says, was one of the conditions he sought in exchange for taking the new gig.

He got it. “I don’t need to sit there and listen to all of these outsized voices with competing banter,” Cuomo says during a recent interview. “I think there’s enough of it.”

And so, CNN will make a new bid in what is perhaps cable news’ most heated fray. When CNN debuts “Cuomo Prime Time” at 9 p.m. on Monday, it will mark the network’s first major change to its primetime schedule since it swapped out Piers Morgan in 2014 for Don Lemon and a new line of documentary series. It will also represent a new effort to take on two of the most watched hosts in the field. Cuomo’s new show will air directly against Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” and MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” The panel discussions will thrive elsewhere, says Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, but “we don’t want this show to be like every other show or any other show.”

Cuomo is taking on a more difficult task by eschewing the talking heads. The panels “have become predictable and tiresome, but there’s a safety in numbers with them,” says Mark Feldstein, chair of broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland. But “live, one-on-one interviews are a high wire balancing act: more interesting than panels if the guest and interviewer are good but deadly if they’re not.”

The anchor wouldn’t have it any other way. The panels, he says, often serve as a sort of echo chamber and let viewers pick out the speakers who say things that confirm their own beliefs. One-on-one conversation does not.  “I like being uncomfortable. I like making other people uncomfortable,” Cuomo explains. “How do you know that? Why do we think that? It’s not coming from a bad place.” CNN hopes to make Cuomo’s interviews with people on any side of a debate a new primetime highlight, says Melanie Buck, the executive producer of the new program. “We are going to be able to give these interviews more time than I think other shows are able to do,” she says. “That will be our strength.”

As the son of one New York governor, Mario Cuomo, and the brother of another, Andrew Cuomo, the CNN anchor is well-versed in how to talk to people at the top.  “He saw politics from the inside. He can’t take the B.S.. He will sit there and he will know someone is B.S.-ing, because he saw it from the day he was born,” says Chris Vlasto, senior executive producer of investigations at ABC News, and a former Cuomo colleague.  “He won’t let them get away with it, and that’s what is driving him.”

The real question, however, is whether Cuomo can gain traction against Hannity and Maddow. Can he make inroads at 9 p.m.? His answer is simple: “Yes.”

He feels he’s entering a situation similar to the one he’s leaving at CNN. When he started “New Day” at CNN in 2013, the network had seemingly exhausted its efforts to spark a following in the morning, despite programs like “Starting Point,” “American Morning” and “Early Start.”  After a rocky debut, however, Cuomo and co-anchor Alisyn Camerota gained traction with an A.M. program that wasn’t afraid to to showcase knock-down interviews with newsmakers despite the early hour. Producers at “New Day” would often go commercial free to accommodate the anchors’ 25-minute-plus discussions. Cuomo recently made news with an interview with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that lasted more than 42. In the first quarter, “New Day” made a 6% gain among adults between 25 and 54 – the demographic most favored by advertisers  – and notched a 4% hike in overall viewership. That said, the show is still, like Cuomo, duking things out. In April, rivals at Fox News and MSNBC won more viewers in both categories.

Cuomo will face more of the same in primetime. The Hannity and Maddow shows have each trumped CNN in recent weeks.  In April, Sean Hannity  had the most viewers among people between 25 and 54 – an average of 678,000. Maddow captured an average of 637,000. Anderson Cooper’s two-hour program, which currently fills the 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. hours, lured an average of 361,000. Trends have been similar in May.

“They are prohibitive favorites. I’m certainly an underdog. It would be silly to think otherwise,” says Cuomo. “But if you do the job for the right reasons, you will do well.” He sticks to a philosophy: If he just keeps doing what he’s passionate about, audiences will find him. “You grind and you grow. I believe in that very much. You can’t do the job if you don’t think you can have success.” He also intends to take his program on the road, to scenes of natural disasters or moments of crisis, which he feels will also distinguish him from rivals.

Cuomo’s launch could give CNN a new opportunity to tout a brand that has been transformed in recent years. Once derided for being too vanilla and down-the-middle in its presentation of news events, the network has pushed a sort of “aggressive neutral” since late 2016, sometimes through Cuomo’s morning work. A new promo for “Cuomo Prime Time” tells viewers that “When He Faces Power….No One Gets A Pass,” and shows the anchor dueling with everyone from Bernie Sanders to Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“We fully acknowledge that it’s the hardest hour in all of news, and you have two really talented broadcasters in that hour,” says Zucker, who adds: “One of them has already convicted Donald Trump and one of them has already exonerated Donald Trump. We are looking for the truth, and that’s how we want to set ourselves apart.” Hannity regularly tells people he’s not a journalist, though it’s not always clear his viewers make that distinction. Maddow is known for her meticulous research and preparation before launching into an hour on MSNBC.

Cuomo says he will “test” visitors with “debate with decency” that asks guests to explain themselves to CNN’s viewers.

CNN’s ad-sales team has pitched the program to Madison Avenue as a place where visitors understand what they are facing. “Regardless of how aggressive he will get in terms of talking or interviewing, the viewers like him and the people he’s interviewing enjoy talking to him,” says Katrina Cukaj, executive vice president of ad sales strategy and network partnerships for Turner Ad Sales.

People in political life “know the difference between a hard punch and a cheap shot,” says Cuomo. “I don’t do cheap shots.”

Cuomo has long leaned in to the news job. A former lawyer, he got his start by making an appearance on Geraldo Rivera’s syndicated program. Rivera was impressed enough with his performance that he helped Cuomo make a connection with an agent. Cuomo says he remained skeptical of the idea. Roger Ailes showed interest in him, Cuomo recalls, telling him,  “I’ll teach you the skills. You’ll either do it or you’ll flame out, and you don’t care anyway.”

But Cuomo did care, and he was noticed by both Victor Neufeld, the former producer of ABC’s “20/20” as well as Diane Sawyer. Cuomo would go on to work “20/20” as well as “Good Morning America,”and stood out for his willingness to get out in the field and cover distressing scenes or moments of crisis, says Vlasto.

Cuomo and his team aren’t stacking the show’s opening nights with surprise guests and they don’t expect outsize ratings success in the program’s early days. But he will show up every night, he says, and try to help viewers gain insight into what’s happening out in the world. He thinks it can work. “Only a fool thinks you’re going to do anything quickly in a business that‘s about habit,” he says. “And only a fool does something this ambitious without thinking they can do it well.”

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