THE voices on a new television talk show tonight will not rumble, thunder, roar, or reason in deep authoritarian tones. Lighten up, pundits, it's time for "To the Contrary," a Maryland Public Television program that focuses on the news from the viewpoint of an all-woman panel of journalists and experts. They talk about anything from throw weights to the economy to the United States Supreme Court.
"To the Contrary," a half-hour program that will run Fridays on many PBS stations, is the first national news analysis program done by women.
"There was a certain amount of resistance to the program because it had never been done before," says Bonnie Erbe, the show's originator and Mutual/NBC Radio Network legal-affairs correspondent, adding that it took four years for it to get on the air. "Most women think it's great.... Most of the time, with men under 50, men think it's a good idea. But overall, women get more excited [about the show] than men, no doubt.... We certainly want men to watch as well."
In an interview, Ms. Erbe has a few crisp words about the show's tone: "It's somewhere in the middle between 'Washington Week in Review' and 'The McLaughlin Group.' A little more electric than 'Washington Week' but not as cacophonous as 'The McLaughlin Group,' " she says. "My feeling about shows where they sit around and yell is if you want to get stressed out, go sit in rush- hour traffic. It's not why I turn on the TV set."
Erbe, who is also a syndicated columnist, leads the group of alternating panelists who include: Nina Totenberg, legal-affairs correspondent for National Public Radio and "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour"; the Canadian Broadcasting Company's political commentator Linda Chavez; Dorothy Gilliam, Washington Post columnist; Constance Newman, director of the US Office of Personnel Management; Kate O'Beirne, vice president of government relations at the Heritage Foundation, and Julianne Malveaux, economist and writ er who is a faculty member of the American Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley.
"What I'm looking for in terms of tone," Erbe says, "is the same kind of chemistry you get in terms of five intelligent, well-informed friends who sit around at a party or a kitchen table or in a restaurant talking with each other: a bit of humor, a bit of agreement or disagreement, a bit of fun. Not purely educational. Also, television means it's entertainment to some extent, information and entertainment." Panelists will try to keep the show lively and informative, taking positions but not in a hostile
way, she emphasizes.
"To the Contrary" will cover not just women's issues, but such topics as gun control, the environment, capital punishment, the aging of baby boomers, social security, and defense spending.
Among the panelists who may appear are authorities such as Madeleine Albright, head of the Center for National Policy; Kathryn Bushkin, director of editorial administration at U.S. News & World Report; Rozanne Ridgway, president of the Atlantic Council of the United States; and Gwen Ifill, reporter for the New York Times.