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Commentary - Simon Dumenco

Inside the Collapse of CNN's 'The Sarah Palin Power Hour'

The Former Alaska Governor's Career as a TV Talker Showed So Much Promise. What Went Wrong?

By Published on . 55

WASILLA, ALASKA (Feb. 18, 2010) -- Once again shocking the media establishment, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin announced that she was leaving her CNN talk show, "The Sarah Palin Power Hour," after just four months on the air and well short of the terms of her two-year contract. In an echo of the manner in which she announced her resignation from political office last summer, Ms. Palin spoke to a small gathering of reporters at a hastily called press conference at a moose orphanage in Outer Wasilla, a suburb of Wasilla reachable only by dog sled. With her family at her side, she stated that, "I believe I can better progress the cause of broadcasting by working outside of broadcasting."

CHAT FEST: Drew marquee advertisers including Snuggie and ExtenZe.
CHAT FEST: Drew marquee advertisers including Snuggie and ExtenZe. Credit: Jim Watson
Ms. Palin's surprise move rocked both the broadcasting world and the political establishment, in that her departure from CNN is already being interpreted as a move that could lay the groundwork for a 2012 presidential run. But as media commentators across the spectrum characterized her announcement as both "rambling" and "folksy," there was little in the substance of her speech that offered further clues as to her immediate plans.

"A lot of people talk the talk about quitting, and they never quit," Ms. Palin said, reading from a prepared text. "But to say you're going to quit and then you actually follow through, that's the opposite of quitting! You know, sometimes you just need to have the courage and the conviction to look the moose square in the eye, level your shotgun, and say, 'Sorry, fella, but this is what's best for America, and Alaska, and all Americans,' and then ya pull the trigger. And if you end up getting a little messy, if you get a little blood and guts on your Naughty Monkeys, well, so be it." Ms. Palin was believed to be making reference to Naughty Monkey Double Dare Pumps, the bright-red buckled shoes that she wore when Sen. John McCain announced her selection as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008. She added, "Sometimes shaking things up and not doing what the good ol' boys expect you to do -- that's what you have to do to progress your values. And anybody that knows me knows that I'm not interested in broadcasting as usual."

Given her tumultuous tenure as a chat-show host, Ms. Palin's talk of defying broadcasting conventions had particular resonance. Her departure from Alaska's governorship prompted something of a bidding war between cable-news networks last summer. Early front-runner Fox News was ultimately beat out by CNN, which reportedly saw hiring the rising star of the conservative political scene as a way to broaden its appeal and poach viewers from its bitter rival. At the time, an unnamed CNN executive familiar with the negotiations told the Washington Post that "we backed up the Brink's truck and threw in a Neiman Marcus gift card."

Almost immediately, though, CNN officials appeared to be having second thoughts about their new hire. Leaks to the press about the apparently exorbitant costs of creating a broadcasting franchise for Ms. Palin roiled the network in the months before the debut, on Alaska Day, Oct. 18, of "The Sarah Palin Power Hour," with millions reportedly being spent on building new studios, complete with town-hall-style amphitheaters, in both Wasilla and Washington, D.C.

The program drew unwelcome headlines when one of its early guests, Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria, was chased off the set by a studio audience chanting "Terrorist!" and "Kill him!" And, in what came to be known as Coopergate, VF.com, the website of Vanity Fair, published excerpts of e-mails that Ms. Palin's husband Todd sent to various network executives. Mr. Palin apparently sought the removal of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. "We have reason to believe that he's a socialist," Mr. Palin wrote of Mr. Cooper in one e-mail addressed to Jeffrey L. Bewkes, Chairman and CEO of Time Warner, the parent company of CNN.

Ms. Palin also apparently sought to use her new status as a TV power broker -- her program debuted to astronomical ratings -- to affect programming decisions. In one widely reported incident, Ms. Palin called Eileen O'Neill, president of cable network TLC, demanding that she cancel "Hot Wired With Levi Johnston," a home-improvement show starring the frequently shirtless apprentice-electrician former boyfriend of daughter Bristol. Johnston, the father of Ms. Palin's grandson, Tripp, has an icy relationship with the Palin family. Ms. O'Neill is said to have patiently explained to Ms. Palin that TLC is not owned by CNN or Time Warner, but by Discovery Communications of Silver Spring, Md., prompting Ms. Palin to say, "I don't care, I still want it fixed."

Ms. Palin's record early ratings quickly came down to Earth, and her program was hardly a hit with critics. Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times called it "a bastard mix of 'The 700 Club' and 'The Deadliest Catch,'" while Robert Bianco of USA Today called it "the TV-watching equivalent of waterboarding." Still, CNN was reportedly using the "The Sarah Palin Power Hour" to draw additional business from marquee cable-news advertisers including Snuggie and ExtenZe.

At press time, CNN officials were unavailable for comment, though one executive, reached at what he characterized as "an emergency, um, offsite meeting" held at the Stone Rose Lounge, a popular drinking spot overlooking Central Park in the Time Warner Center, said of Ms. Palin's departure, "Oh, it's totally, totally OK. No harm done!" He declined to speak on the record but maintained that "We intend to release Sarah from her contract and wish her the best as she progresses with the progressing of her values. And stuff. Or whatever."

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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