Insight. Antics.

OutFront, Top-Down.

In Media, Television on October 4, 2011 at 12:44 am

I watched Erin Burnett’s debut on CNN tonight, in her new program OutFront, and have some thoughts on the first broadcast.

Unlike the world of scripted TV dramas and sitcoms, first shows don’t portend success or failure in news, or variety programs, for that matter. I remember watching the first Colbert Report and thinking it was never going to last, for instance.

OutFront conveyed a seriousness about the news of the day coupled with conversational frankness, though it’s unclear whether it (or anything) can stand out in a cable news landscape where the graphics all look so similar that it’s hard to know when one show ends and another begins. After all, to the average channel clicker, isn’t Erin Burnett just (recent CNN anchor) Campbell Brown 10 years younger?

No disrespect to Ms. Brown, but I’d argue no. Burnett has proven she has chops in interviews with CEOs and guts in travels to hotspots around the globe, including Cairo’s Tahrir Square earlier this year.

I’m a longtime fan of Erin’s from her work at CNBC, chiefly on Squawk on the Street (where I know her former producer) and Street Signs. She could also hold her own on Meet the Press.

I also like that she went to Williams College, because I respect the education my good friends received there, and hold a soft spot for the elusive purple cow.

However, a title like OutFront implies an on-scene immediacy. The promos for the show depict Erin in the field, camera at the ready. What I can’t tell yet is if the show’s name is just a well-tested, aggressive title, or if it will be taken quite literally. She was in a studio tonight, after all.

They’ve definitely done some jet-setting segments (there were pre-taped packages form China and Pakistan tonight) for the rollout of the show, but is that sustainable? Is the plan to have her travel to the forefront regularly?

Earlier today, she was in the thick of it at the Occupy Wall Street “leaderless resistance movement” at Liberty Square in downtown Manhattan. Unfortunately though, most stories aren’t a 15-minute cab ride away.

That report was insightful: it showed the energy, but also the frolicking disorganization of a potentially burgeoning force. It displayed people engaging in something that simultaneously looked like both a noble endeavor and a silly one.

The 20-something kid she spoke with there didn’t know that our government actually turned a profit on the TARP bailouts. I feel like he should have, but it was also debatable editorial judgment to show one person who didn’t know that. If they showed a whole slew of clueless demonstrators, that would have meant more.

I found Erin respectful, but assertive in her interview with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (who comes across like your unexpectedly driven uncle). I’d be remiss if I didn’t point one thing was missing, though. On Friday, she tweeted, “Just talked to Defense Sec Leon Panetta. Says he had authority to kill Al-Alwaki, even tho he was us citizen. Full intv #OutFrontCNN Monday!” While terrorism was discussed, Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who was part of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was not mentioned.

Later, in a segment called “Outcast,” Erin reported about the subpar conduct of a CIA operative in the field in Pakistan and then at home, where he got in a fight over a parking spot. It was the weakest part of the program, feeling like a sleeker version of Keith Olbermann’s “Worst Person in the World.”

Erin closed with a tribute and thank you to Mark Haines, her “lovably grouchy” co-anchor and mentor at Squawk on the Street. He passed away unexpectedly in May. I literally yelled “No!” at my screen when I heard. It’s a great loss; he really came through the screen and spoke to you.

That final segment is supposed to be a short essay going forward, but tonight was a fitting deference to the past that has contributed to Erin’s readiness for the future. I was glad she got through it, too. She barely welled up and her voice cut out ever so slightly at the end.

In the way that the ultimate test of a company’s mark on its sector and on the culture is whether it becomes a verb (i.e., Google it, FedEx it, Ziploc it), the team at OutFront set a pretty lofty goal (perhaps in jest) that they aspire to be so impactful as to have others in the media say, “They OutFronted us.” It’s bold. I hope they do, but then again nobody ever says they got Hardballed or 60 Minutes-ed.

In closing, the show was uneven, and honestly, that’s fine. Let’s see where it goes.

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