In today’s cable news environment of hot takes and food fights, in which panel discussions are more likely than not to result in combatants talking over each other while trying to get their beloved talking points heard, exasperated viewers may be wondering to themselves why there’s no sensible option. They may think to themselves why the networks aren’t giving them a political panel program that centers on respectful conversation and analysis involving an ideologically diverse group.
The thing is, such a show exists. But judging by the ratings, your average cable news viewer is unaware of it.
HLN’s S.E. Cupp Unfiltered debuted last summer with a fair bit of fanfare. It was announced months ahead of time that S.E. Cupp, a conservative political commentator who had become a familiar face on cable news in recent years, would host a nightly program as part of an effort to air more live programming on CNN’s sister network.
A few months after its debut, however, the news analysis show was moved from its 7 PM slot to 5 PM as it struggled to gain an audience. HLN also moved another new show, Prime Time Justice With Ashleigh Banfield, from 8 PM to 6 PM, adding an additional hour to the program and renaming Crime & Justice With Ashleigh Banfield. The network went back to airing taped programming in the primetime hours, mostly Forensic Files.
Since moving into the earlier time slot late last year, Cupp has continued to see her program largely ignored by the masses. While HLN’s normal ratings are a fraction of the Big Three cable news networks, Cupp’s have been especially soft. For example, this past Tuesday, Cupp’s show only pulled in 55,000 total viewers and 20,000 in the key 25-54 demographic. In comparison, Fox News’ The Five attracted 2.091 million total viewers and 323,000 demo viewers in that same time slot.
And this is unfortunate. The show offers a refreshing format compared to the rest of the landscape and Cupp is an engaging host who can quickly bounce from tossing out a righteously indignant monologue to moderating an in-depth discussion on complex political and cultural topics. Rather than seeing your stereotypical “off-the-rails” segments that have more and more become the norm on cable news, you’re likely to come away learning a thing or three when tuning in to a broadcast.
“I give a great deal of credit to SE and her [executive producer] Conway Cliff for creating a format for the show that is at once a familiar cable news panel discussion and yet unique and different enough to stand out in the crowd,” Mediaite founding editor Colby Hall, who has appeared as a panelist on Unfiltered, said of Cupp’s show. “It’s well-informed, topical, extremely relatable and consistently treats its viewers with respect, as though they are well informed on the basics. That’s a refreshing difference.”
Besides what Hall highlighted, one can also see and feel the influence of Cupp’s numerous appearances on Real With with Bill Maher within her show’s format. Maher’s program has always been marked by the host’s attempt to present a diverse panel to spark a conversation. While Maher has a tendency to push for confrontation with his groups and will provoke his guests when he feels things are too subdued, Cupp appears to be a bit calmer and more diplomatic with her guests. At the same time, she still keeps the discussion flowing and interesting.
Cupp herself acknowledged that “some of the Bill Maher sensibility” has seeped into her show, noting to Contemptor that she was essentially “raised at the school of Bill Maher.”
“The show we do is the show I always wanted to do,” she said, adding that having a panel with “different viewpoints and being unpredictable” while not just giving audiences what they want to hear is “probably something I have taken away from working with him.”
As for the panels themselves, the HLN host told us that one way she keeps the discussion engaging and informative without it devolving into a talking points fest is that she tends to steer clear from bringing on flacks and spokespeople.
“We’re not there to spin,” she stated. “We’re there to have a real conversation that I hope leaves the viewer informed and not just necessarily reaffirmed in their beliefs.”
Hall seemed to reiterate those points when talking about his experiences as a panelist.
“Though I’ve been never given this direction, it seems that panelists are encouraged to disagree without being disagreeable,” he explained. “The format feels like a really good dinner party conversation with people who have different points of view in a respectful, entertaining and often funny way.”
Hall let Contemptor know that Cupp is “genuine and smart as hell” who “calls it like she sees it,” adding that the conservative host is “not just unafraid to go against the conventional party line, but eager to do so.” He also described as a “huge star.”
Despite the soft ratings, Unfiltered has received a decent amount of online attention. Quite a few of Cupp’s monologues and interviews have gained considerable notice on social media, and media observers seem to have a favorable view of the program. Is the main problem just the venue? Would it help if Cupp’s show was moved to CNN? Hall thinks so.
“I am a huge fan of Ken Jautz (HLN chief) as he is one of the last true gentlemen in cable news,” he said. “And I give him a ton of respect for giving SE a shot. But HLN seems all in on true crime and so, I think SE is a MUCH better fit on CNN.”
Hall continued, “Not sure where she would slot, but I’d watch the shit out of her at 7 PM on CNN, but then where does the esteemed Erin Burnett go? Suffice to say, Jeff Zucker currently has a deep talent bench and he gets paid the big bucks to figure that out.”
For her part, Cupp said she has heard from many in the media who tell her the “show should be on CNN.” She understandably wouldn’t tell Contemptor her own personal thoughts on whether a move would be beneficial to her program. Cupp also expressed the strategy behind placing the show on HLN, saying that the network’s audience skews more conservative and female and how that appeared at the time to present a good fit for her show.
But, yeah, let’s face it, this is a show that would likely thrive in a late-afternoon or even primetime slot on CNN. Maybe have it go heads-up against Fox News’ panel show The Five and MSNBC’s MTP Daily while cutting the Situation Room down to an hour? Just a thought.
It could also presumably gain a wider audience if given a weekend morning slot, perhaps facing off against MSNBC’s AM Joy on Saturdays. Either way, this is a move that CNN’s brass has to be seriously considering. They likely understand they have a product on their hands that is being wasted and could be far better served on another network.
Will we see this move made by the higher-ups? Or will Unfiltered continue to air on HLN, which has shown itself to be an ill fit, and hope that it can grow its audience via online engagement and word-of-mouth? That remains the question.