When Fareed Zakaria returns to CNN (NYSE: TWX) on Aug. 26 after being temporarily suspended for plagiarism, he will undoubtedly offer more than a few words of repentance. He might even dedicate the entire hour of his weekly public affairs show, "GPS," to a humble soliloquy of remorse and redemption -- apologizing both to his loyal viewers and to Jill Lepore, the New Yorker writer whose paragraph he admitted to lifting in a moment of attribution oversight. If nothing else, the program will be a fascinating bit of Sunday-morning television and a welcome change from the din of news pundits harping on the gaffe-of-the-week from the presidential campaign trail.
It might also be just what CNN needs.
The floundering cable network, which recently logged its lowest viewership in two decades, has been in desperate need of a game changer to shake things up. Jim Walton, its longtime president, announced last month that he will be stepping down at the end of this year, and some reports claim that the network is gearing up for a major programming overhaul. Zakaria's return is bound to shift eyeballs in CNN's direction, at least temporarily. And while plagiarism -- the mortal sin of the journalistic world -- may not be the ideal platform with which to lure those eyeballs, the old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity should not be so easily discounted.
The notion of shamed talk-show host returning to the airwaves after a public foible is far from unprecedented. And yet if history is any indication, any uptick in viewership Zakaria's high-profile return might bring CNN may not last long enough to register as ratings gold. Consider David Letterman's on-air apology in 2009, after the married talk-show host was discovered to have had sexual relationships with some of his staffers. CBS scored big in the ratings on the night in question, but rival talker Jay Leno re-emerged the late-night ratings winner before the week was out. More recently, professional blowhard Rush Limbaugh was forced to offer a semi-apology for calling the Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke a "slut," after she advocated for women's access to contraception. Some of Limbaugh's advertisers bolted following the comments, but his radio show enjoyed a month-long rating spike as high as 60 percent.
Not all post-scandal follow ups are so fruitful, however. Following the prostitution scandal that forced Eliot Spitzer to resign as New York's governor, the disgraced politician was given a talk show on (where else?) CNN -- where the network put him up against MSNBC's (Nasdaq: CMCSA) Keith Olbermann and Fox's (Nasdaq; NWS) Bill O'Reilly. But Spitzer's fall from grace and ultimate plea for redemption did not score the former governor many points with viewers. His show, "Parker Spitzer," was a critical and commercial disaster, with the New York Times saying the Spitzer sex scandal "cast an awkward shadow" over the chemistry between Spitzer and his co-host, Kathleen Parker. Parker left the show after four months of feuds with Spitzer back stage and get-me-out-of-here expressions on the air, but her departure was no help for the low-rated program, which was canceled that summer.
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Granted, Zakaria did not get caught with a $1,000-an-hour call girl after years of railing against prostitution. On the contrary: Internal investigations by both CNN and Time magazine, where he writes a column, found his act of plagiarism to be an "unintentional error and an isolated incident," hence he is returning to work at both news outlets. And all signs indicate that he has plenty of support. A recent Huffington Post article about Zakaria's exoneration has attracted more than 2,700 user comments and counting. The majority of the comments are positive, commending Zakaria's talent as a reporter, his fortitude and his character. "I never had one doubt about Fareed," one commenter wrote. "It was just a matter of time."
If the commenter is right, Zakaria's return broadcast could be more than a comeback for the talk-show host -- it could be the turning point CNN has been waiting for.