Who Could Replace Chris Cuomo in CNN's Primetime Lineup?

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(From left) Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett, Chris Cuomo, Jim Acosta, Norah O’Donnell (Photos: CNN, CBS News, Getty Images)

Who Could Replace Chris Cuomo in CNN’s Primetime Lineup?

Ratings for some of the network’s contenders paint a bleak picture

Chris Cuomo was yanked off his nightly CNN show last week and fired over the weekend, and while the network still plans an investigation into his conduct in support of his embattled brother Andrew amid the then-New York governor’s scandal over sexual harassment accusations, executives now have a new problem: Cuomo, whose show aired in the competitive 9 p.m. ET time slot, was consistently its highest-rated primetime host. Who can replace him?

Michael Smerconish, a former George W. Bush official who hosts a Saturday morning program for the network, will fill in for Cuomo this week. A CNN spokesperson confirmed that as far as fill-in hosts go, “nothing has been determined” beyond the next five days. (The network declined to comment on any plans for a permanent replacement.)

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Anderson Cooper, who extended his 8 p.m. ET show to two hours last week after Cuomo’s initial suspension, might be one possibility. “Anderson Cooper 360” did edge out a rare total-viewership win in the ratings over Cuomo in November, making him CNN’s highest-rated host for the month. Overall, Cooper nabbed an average of 786,000 total viewers for the month, while Cuomo brought in 774,000, which was his lowest-ever monthly average.

Cuomo has lagged well behind his cable-news competitors: Fox News’ Sean Hannity averaged a total of 3.234 million viewers last month, while MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow grabbed 1.981 million.

While a return to Cooper’s two-hour program could make sense, it is also worth noting that “360” itself isn’t a ratings juggernaut despite its November ratings win. Across cable news, “360” came in 24th place. Fox News delivered nine of the top 10 programs in total viewership in November, with “Tucker Carlson Tonight” the clear leader. Rachel Maddow, whose show airs on MSNBC opposite Cuomo’s and Sean Hannity’s, came in ninth place.

This week’s host, Smerconish, also doesn’t command great ratings. Though his 9 a.m. Saturday show netted him 1.293 million average total viewers in November 2020, during the presidential election and its immediate aftermath, viewership declined 52% in total viewers year over year. Last month, “Smerconish” nabbed an average of just 622,000 total average viewers. His program is consistently bested by the final hour of Fox News’ “Fox & Friends,” though it’s worth pointing out “Smerconish” did beat MSNBC in the time slot last month.

There have been reports that the lead contender is afternoon anchor Jake Tapper, who has a reputation as a Twitter firebrand as well as a journalist’s journalist who snubs public relations staffers and has repeatedly said he doesn’t even vote in races that he covers. That is a stark departure from Cuomo, who was advising his brother Andrew, then New York’s governor, through a scandal that CNN’s other reporters were covering in detail. That could work to Tapper’s advantage in spite of the fact that his ratings aren’t great, either. (His “The Lead” was in 29th place in November.)

Numerous pundits have called for Jim Acosta, a former antagonist of Donald Trump who was given his own weekend hours earlier this year, to be elevated to weekday primetime, but his ratings are also less than ideal, especially for the network’s most competitive time slot. Across the “CNN Newsroom” broadcasts he hosts on Saturdays and Sundays, he averaged 479,000 total viewers in November, which is down 67% from the 1.445 million who tuned into those hours in 2020. While his segments do routinely go viral on Twitter over the weekends, it will be hard to make the case that he needs to be given the top slot in primetime to continue generating online discussion.

It is also worth considering that CNN is the only one of the big three cable news channels that doesn’t have a woman in its primetime lineup. MSNBC’s Maddow and Fox News’ Laura Ingraham both pull in major numbers for their networks, consistently landing among the top 10 cable news shows each month, while CNN’s primetime lineup remains a boy’s club.

Erin Burnett leads into primetime with her 7 p.m. “OutFront,” but MSNBC also already has a woman anchoring that hour. Fox News has been rotating its top talent into the 7 p.m. slot on a fill-in basis for months and routinely gives the hour to women, too. (When she departed the company earlier this year, former CNN anchor Brooke Baldwin slammed the network’s male domination: ”The most influential anchors on our network — the highest-paid — are men.”)

One option is Laura Coates, CNN’s senior legal analyst, who routinely appears on the 10 p.m. program, “CNN Tonight With Don Lemon.” Her rapport with Lemon, at least, could keep the tradition of chummy handoff between programs alive. (Lemon’s show averaged 539,000 total viewers in November for 40th place in cable news, edging out Newsmax’s “Greg Kelly Reports,” which garnered 392,000, on average.)

The network could also look outside its ranks to fill the vacancy. One name that has surfaced is Norah O’Donnell, whose three-year contract as anchor of CNN’s “Evening News” is up this spring. O’Donnell, who ruffled feathers by moving the broadcast from New York to Washington, D.C., with the backing of then-CBS News President Susan Zirinsky, has failed to lift the third-place ratings fortunes of her show compared to ABC’s David Muir and NBC’s Lester Holt.

One other outsider who will soon have some free time on his hands is MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who announced his departure from that network earlier this year. Williams was given the 11 p.m. slot after spending some time in journalistic purgatory for embellishing his career record, but he gets decent ratings and has household name recognition. When he announced his impending departure from Rockefeller Center, Williams said, “There are many things I want to do, and I’ll pop up again somewhere.”

Whether that “somewhere” is CNN’s primetime lineup remains to be seen.

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