One of the worst things a reviewer can say about a television program is that "it has potential,” which usually means the show's not utilizing much of it. That situation was played out on Monday, when the Cable News Network brought back “Crossfire,” a conservative-liberal debate program that had been in television limbo for eight years.
Despite a newsworthy discussion topic -- the fate of Syria, where chemical weapons may have been used by the government on rebels -- and two well-known hosts, GOP former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Stephanie Cutter, deputy manager of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, critics were not impressed by the first edition of the 30-minute weeknight series.
Dylan Byers of Politico said that the debut with Republican senator Rand Paul from Kentucky and Democratic senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey as guests “wasn't great. But there's potential.”
Echoing that comment was Scott Jones of ftvlive.com, who said the hosts “met in the middle of awkward,” and “neither looked comfortable at all trying to host a show.”
“We're not saying that the show doesn't have some potential,” he added. “'Crossfire' will be driven by how good the guests are and will be geared entirely to political junkies.”
Jones referred to the fact that CNN moved the show's debut up a week to try and take advantage of the situation in Syria “and would have been wise to wait until the show was ready to hit the air.”
“It wasn't ready last night,” he said, “and it showed.”
Brian Lowry, a TV columnist for Variety.com, stated that “based on the look, style and graphics, it’s hard to escape a feeling the news network is aping the format of ESPN’s round-table-type afternoon discussion shows.”
While admitting that “there’s nothing wrong with trying to bring the give-and-take of the Sunday-morning talk shows” to the CNN weeknight line-up, Lowry noted that “everything about the presentation of 'Crossfire' suggests despite the commitment to an even-handed approach, this is more about showbiz than politics -- policy debate as verbal wrestling.”
Laura Bennett of the New Republic also criticized the “Crossfire” premiere for having “very little fire” and quoted Gingrich as stating: “We want everyone ... to be part of a conversation, not just part of a shouting match.
She then indicated that the debut was ”far from a shouting match. And that is precisely the problem.”
But the show has promise, and the awkwardness of the premiere may be mostly a matter of working out kinks.
At that point, Bennett turned her attention to Gingrich, whom she said “seemed a bit like a sedated bear, with no hint of his usual ardor. His questions were wordy, and he appeared to be consciously instructing himself to be measured and calm.”
Lowry described the former House speaker as “uncharacteristically restrained. Usually a vociferous critic of the media (including, it should be noted, CNN), Gingrich came across as more sarcastic than anything else.”
The TV columnist had even harsher terms for the liberal co-host:
Cutter, alas, was even more ill at ease in the hosting seat. She interrupted, laughed nervously, rolled her eyes and was visibly embarrassed to be talked over.
However, neither Gingrich nor Cutter “was what you would call a natural in the hosting role, underscoring the difference between guesting as a talking head and actually having to function as a TV personality,” Lowry noted.
Bennett criticized the show's “mandate of civility,” which “felt at times like a muzzle.”
At one point, she quoted Cutter as stating: “We both agree that the president has a big mountain to climb." Gingrich then said: “We both agree that this is one of the most tumultuous periods of change I can remember.”
“Unfortunately,” Bennett added, “you wouldn't know it from watching” Monday's show.
Along the same lines, Time magazine's James Poniewozik wrote that watching the first episode was like "watching a catfight between stuffed cats," calling the dialogue "uncomfortably stilted."
However, the reviewers did find some things to praise from the premiere.
Along with the lack of a live audience that encouraged harsh debate, Lowry liked a segment at the end of each program entitled “Ceasefire,” when the hosts discuss viewpoints and concepts they share.
Unfortunately, that phrase led Gingrich to accidentally welcome his guests to a segment of “Ceasefire.”
Cutter and Gingrich serve as alternate co-hosts for liberal political consultant Stephanie Cutter and conservative political commentator S. E. Cupp.
Perhaps the most positive outcome of the new show's debut was the fact that its ratings averaged 581,000 total viewers and 171,000 adults in the important 25- to 50-year-old demographic, a rise over the network's prior four-week average by 44 percent overall and 21 in the demo and an even bigger gain over CNN's ratings a year ago.
And just when it seemed things couldn't get worse for the “Lean Forward” channel, “Crossfire” finished ahead of MSNBC’s “PoliticsNation” (171,000 to 116,000), while both placed well behind Fox News, which averaged 384,000 viewers for “Special Report.”