More news shows put hosts on soapboxes

New shows featuring Phil Donahue and Bill O'Reilly lead the rise of opinion news programs on prime time.

If one were to scan the staff rosters of television's news divisions, the name "Howard Beale" would not appear. But if there is grandfather for the current climate of TV news then Mr. Beale may be as good a name as any.

It was Howard Beale, the fictional anchorman in the 1976 film "Network," who took to the air and ordered his viewers to open their windows and yell, "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." Once far-fetched absurdism, Beale's attitude is increasingly becoming standard-operating procedure as news programs, in the past hesitant to express opinions, are setting up soapboxes for finger-wagging ranters during prime time.

Last night, for instance, MSNBC welcomed America's favorite white-haired liberal, Phil Donahue, and his "special interviewing talents" to the network. Also furthering the trend is the Fox network. On Thursday, it premiered its weekly newsmagazine "The Pulse," which brings much of the opinionated conservative crew – including Bill O'Reilly – from cable's Fox News Channel to the broadcast world.

There have even been changes at CNN's "Crossfire." Once a half-hour news program featuring straightforward, if occasionally testy, exchanges between liberals and conservatives, it has become an hour-long show with a studio audience and humor segments. The show's new ad campaign features the hosts in boxing garb.

Andrew Tyndall, who monitors television news in his weekly newsletter The Tyndall report, says the new shows mark a shift in news programming.

"The changes at MSNBC (which is moving its nightly news for the Donahue show) really change the mission of the network. They have decided to become more like Fox, more opinion." Meanwhile, he says, Fox is taking the gamble that "the in-your-face approach that works with every other broadcast format will also work with news in prime time. I guess they figure, why not?"

Why not indeed. Any channel surfer who paused to watch the opening of "The Pulse" might have momentarily thought he was watching a game show. The set, which appears to hold all the strobe and spotlights of a Regis Philbin quiz show, flashed and flickered as a rock-style riff played with a voice yelling "We are The Pulse!"

The show led off a segment from "top investigative reporter" Geraldo Rivera on how illegal Muslim immigrants may be sneaking over the Mexican border. Back in the studio, anchor Shepard Smith asked the TV audience, "Could they be in your backyard?" and added with dread, "Keep your eyes open."

But if fright isn't your cup of tea, "The Pulse" also features the person they dub "the most controversial journalist on television" – Fox's Bill O'Reilly. He appears in a weekly segment entitled, rather Beale-esquely, "Who's Annoying Me Now." On Thursday, O'Reilly was annoyed by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt, who "makes Barney Fife look like Sherlock Holmes."

Of course, opinion and sensationalism in TV news are nothing new, Mr. Tyndall points out. ABC's John Stossel specials are heavy on viewpoint, and NBC's "Dateline" can vary from celebrity pieces to tabloid-style journalism. But cable's Fox News has changed the game on television news. News channels require 24 hours of news – often a scarce commodity. So Fox decided to define itself differently by creating a personality that holds viewers when there isn't breaking news.

"Fox has essentially come out and said, 'We're not going to balance points of view in our shows,' " says media critic John Katz.

The risk for TV news in this approach is twofold, Mr. Katz says. First off, many people stop watching, figuring that the news is not helpful to them. Second, for those who do stay on to watch, "the news becomes no different than watching 'Fear Factor.' "

The question is whether Fox can export its cable news approach to broadcast television. Cable TV is, after all, a medium where even seemingly modest audience numbers equal a victory. For example, O'Reilly's cable show, "The O'Reilly Factor," is considered a dominant hit with 1.6 million viewers – numbers that would get any sit-com canceled.

But such small definitions of success are the fuel behind MSNBC's plan to return Donahue to television. MSNBC's "The News with Brian Williams," a nightly newscast, was competing against O'Reilly and getting thoroughly stomped.

Just picking off a few hundred thousand viewers could make a big difference, and MSNBC hopes to do that by playing Fox's game. "Presumably, Donahue is going to bring that same kind of opinionated, self-assured approach to his show," Tyndall says.

Phil Donahue, of course, could be considered a precursor to O'Reilly, albeit from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

For 29 years, 1967 to 1996, Donahue interviewed people with his own viewpoint abundantly clear. And while his style may be less confrontational than that of O'Reilly (who doesn't blink at calling people "pinheads" or, worse, "socialists") by the end of his tenure on TV, Donahue became known for his rants which could go on for several minutes.

MSNBC, of course, wants to say that, by today's standards, Donahue is a wise old man of television, an answer to our coarsening national dialogue. The networks ads tell people to "Be Thinkful" that he is back.

But in reality it is a practical programming choice, says Tyndall. With CNN still mostly focusing on hard news and Fox News cornering the market on conservative opinion TV, MSNBC has chosen Donahue as a way to test the waters of liberal opinion TV. "They clearly spotted a hole in field, the market is glutted with conservative hosts, so they are trying a liberal. High marks for that," Tyndall says.

But there are dangers. MSNBC has always courted a younger demographic and Tyndall, for one, wonders how they'll respond to Donahue's comeback.

"Couldn't they have found a 28-year-old liberal host? There must be one hanging around Berkeley somewhere."

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