NEW YORK — During its darkest period, CNN's flagship network has seen a glimmer of hope.
Viewers sampled CNN's new prime-time lineup in bigger numbers than ever before during the Egyptian political crisis and, coupled with instability at rival MSNBC, gives its executives hope they can halt an embarrassing slide.
CNN slipped past MSNBC twice in overall prime-time viewership last week and, in its high point last Wednesday, saw all three of its programs beat MSNBC, the Nielsen Co. said. That's only happened a handful of times since 2008, as MSNBC sharpened its lineup with left-of-center talk shows. Both networks lag far behind Fox News Channel, the ratings leader in cable news.
The timing is key for CNN, with Piers Morgan only a few weeks into his job as Larry King's replacement ("Piers Morgan Tonight" airs at 9 p.m. EST). The "Parker/Spitzer" 8 p.m. EST show, which began last fall, has struggled to find an audience.
"Typically, the ratings go down when interest in the big stories wane, but hopefully some of them will stay with you," said Ken Jautz, the executive in charge of CNN's U.S. network. "So it's an opportunity."
CNN retreated to third place this week, as Jautz predicted. But "Parker/Spitzer" had 103,000 more viewers Monday than it had been averaging during its first three months on the air, and Anderson Cooper's 10 p.m. EST show essentially finished in a dead heat with MSNBC's "The Ed Show" on Monday and Tuesday, Nielsen said.
The Egypt story emphasized CNN's newsgathering advantage over its rivals. Only Al Jazeera English seemed more tuned in, but few people in the U.S. can see that network on television.
"Compelling international stories we should not be shying away from," Jautz said. "We should be showcasing good international coverage, as it is a strong differentiator for us."
The opportunity seems most important for former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and his TV partner, Kathleen Parker. Producers continue to tweak the show, Jautz said. About a month ago, it switched to a live show to better respond to breaking news and react to stories of the day. Like time-slot competitor, "The O'Reilly Factor," on Fox News, "Parker/Spitzer" was taped a few hours earlier than airtime.
There have been published reports that CNN was unhappy with Parker, or that Parker didn't like the job.
"I know there have been lots of press reports that I am contemplating changes" with Parker, Jautz said. "But I'm not going to engage in any speculation."
Last Thursday, "Parker/Spitzer" reached 951,000 viewers compared with 1.09 million for Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show (and 2.81 million for Bill O'Reilly on Fox). On Jan. 24, O'Donnell's show slaughtered "Parker/Spitzer" by 1.53 million to 453,000, Nielsen said.
Even though it's a newer show, Piers Morgan's talk show is revamping on the fly. From an early overemphasis on taped interviews with celebrities, the show is looking to be more topical and respond to breaking news. "The format has become more flexible," Jautz said.
On MSNBC, O'Donnell replaced that network's most popular personality, Keith Olbermann, last month. "The Ed Show" has moved into prime-time at 10 p.m. EST for the first time and, almost immediately, Cooper has taken advantage of the instability. As Cooper traveled to Cairo last week for reporting, his show beat MSNBC in viewership for five straight nights.
MSNBC also faces the prospect of competing with Olbermann, the man the network's prime-time lineup was modeled after, when he starts a new prime-time show on Current TV in late spring.
The challenge for CNN will be making the most of an opportunity. Already its breaking news brand is less attractive to repeat viewing than the pointed commentary on Fox and MSNBC, and the programs on CNN's lineup have less natural compatibility.
"What holds them back is that they are branding themselves as down-the-middle news people and people are looking for their little niches," said Marcy McGinnis, a former CBS News executive and journalism professor at Stony Brook University. "People want to hear their opinions spouted back at them."
At CNN, all they wanted was a chance, and Egypt may have offered one.