May 23, 2024

Can “King Charles” rule in the heady, competitive world of cable news? CNN will soon find out.

The new one-hour program will debut Wednesday, November 29, at 10 p.m., and will be co-anchored by the unlikely duo of Gayle King, who still has her long-running day job at rival CBS News, and Charles Barkley, the outspoken sportscaster who remains a key element in the NBA coverage provided by CNN’s parent, Warner Bros. Discovery. CNN executives are counting on the pair to have freewheeling conversations about the biggest stories in the news cycle. “King Charles” is viewed as a limited-run series that will last at least through the first quarter of next year.

“‘King Charles’ is different than anything we have on CNN’s lineup,” says Amy Entelis, CNN’s executive vice president for talent and content development, in responses to questions provided by email. “It’s not a newscast, but rather a talk show centered around the news stories and cultural moments that Gayle and Charles are most interested in.” CNN declined to make executives or the new anchors available for a direct conversation.

Cable-news success has in the past been built largely around consistency. Viewers come to primetime knowing exactly when their favorite hosts will surface on the schedule. Yet the launch of “King Charles” marks the latest effort by big news networks to shake up audience expectations at a time when their viewership and advertising revenue are under new scrutiny. To keep “King Charles” running on Wednesdays at 10 p.m., CNN will have to pre-empt the program that recently debuted at that time, “CNN NewsNight With Abby Phillip.” MSNBC these days features a Monday-night lineup that sports both Rachel Maddow and Jen Psaki, neither of whom anchor programs on other weeknights. MSNBC also often relies on Maddow and a team of favorite anchors and analysts to take over the primetime schedule when bigger news stories are breaking.

Even Fox News Channel, which kept Bill O’Reilly at 8 p.m. for more than two decades, has been experimenting with new concepts. On a few nights each week, veteran host Sean Hannity has been doing his program in front of a live, in-studio audience — and encourages the crowd to be boisterous before the cameras go on. Fox News’ coverage of events tied to the war between Israel and Hamas even spurred recent pre-emptions of primetime opinion programming by breaking news. Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum co-anchored coverage of an address by President Biden regarding the Israel situation during a recent 8 p.m. hour, normally reserved for conservative host Jesse Watters.

The cable-news giants are testing new programming concepts as their audiences move toward on-demand streaming video, and the advertisers who once felt comfortable with their formats are pulling back out of fear that they’ll be called out for sponsoring one opinionated host or another. CNN has seen its audiences drop noticeably in recent months in the aftermath of the 2020 election and a frenzy of scheduling and programming moves under a previous management regime. CNN said its overall primetime audience rose 5% in the third quarter, though the audiences for those shows generally lag both of its main rivals.

Still, the networks see new opportunities. The run-up to a presidential election usually draws new audiences and bigger crowds to their screens. And many of them have launched new streaming venues of their own. “King Charles” is also being made available on Max, Warner Bros. Discovery’s flagship streaming hub.

A promo for the new program tells viewers that “two broadcast titans are coming to CNN,” and features shots of King and Barkley on set and talking to in-house personalities such as John King and Audie Cornish. “This is our unfiltered take on the biggest stories of the day,” says King, while Barkley tells his co-anchor in an aside that “We’re tired of the B.S.!”

The program will feature “a mix of in-studio and remote guests with a focus on conversations that are important, serious and often funny,” says Entelis, who adds: “It will feel like you are spending time together with friends.” The show had its genesis during the tenure of Chris Licht, the former CEO of CNN, who placed some emphasis on looking for non-traditional personalities to add perspective and color to the network’s programming. Bill Maher, the comedian who leads a show on Warner’s HBO, provided some content to CNN for a time. Gayle King was a founding anchor of “CBS This Morning” when Licht was the show’s executive producer.

King and Barkley have other duties — the 2024 election, NBA games — that may not allow them to devote more time to such a program, hence its projected short run. And CNN will move its December 6 broadcast of “King Charles” to 9 p.m. to accommodate coverage of a Republican primary debate that evening. “We expect ‘King Charles’ to be a regular staple on Wednesday evenings, but as with all our programs, we will make space for breaking news as it happens,” says Entelis.

If the show is a success, might CNN find more room for it? “‘King Charles’ is debuting as a limited run series, and we are open to doing more shows like this in the future,” Entelis says.

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