Donahue still high on TV talk after 35 years

Jul 8, 2002  •  Post A Comment

It’s a new world for an old hand.
As talk show pioneer Phil Donahue prepares to debut his new “Donahue” show on ratings-challenged MSNBC at 8 p.m. Monday, July 15, there’s no doubt he’s tensing for the overnight reviews.
“Listen, I’ve always wondered why they come down on you on that first show … the first show … all the heavy breathers. C’mon, we all ought to get at least a couple of weeks and then you’ll come in and tell us who we are.”
Five “Phil Donahue Show” alumni, including executive producer Marlaine Selip, have regrouped with Mr. Donahue. Like him, “They’re aggressive. They have egos just like me,” he says. “They want to win. We play in a realm where the coin is the size of the audience. And we want to draw a large crowd. We want to be competitive.”
The media landscape has changed dramatically since the debut of “The Phil Donahue Show” on WLWD-TV in Dayton, Ohio, in 1967. And national discussion has gotten considerably louder in the six years since Mr. Donahue and Russian commentator Vladimir Pozner ended their three-year stint as co-hosts on CNBC’s after-hours lineup.
But one thing hasn’t changed, said the nine-time-Emmy-winning host, who once did his daytime show wearing women’s clothing to make a point: He still gets a “natural high” from leading a conversation that gets nationwide attention, as he told Electronic Media in a recent interview.
EM: How does all this feel?
Mr. Donahue: It’s a pretty exciting ride, I’ll tell you. I’m going into this without any deception. Everybody knows who I am, and they’re very hopeful I’ll be competitive. And so is the host of the show.
EM: You defined talk TV and then became a casualty of the genre when it became noisy and really tawdry. What is the biggest surprise in this career turn, or return?
Mr. Donahue: Cable was different in 1996 when I walked away. And, of course, 9/11 changed all of us, and we’re still trying to figure out what the changes are and how long the changes will express themselves, what kind of world our grandchildren will grow up in. … I didn’t ask these questions before 9/11.
EM: Has your definition of what people call “great TV” changed since you were the leader of the pack?
Mr. Donahue: I always had a natural high when I had people on who were important and articulate and informed, arguing about what was on everybody’s mind that day. We got a huge sort of self-confidence boost every time we did shows on controversial topics. That has not changed.
What has changed is the palette of issues from which we can now choose. I mean the Patriot Act. Does the war trump the Constitution? What’s going on with vouchers and the Pledge of Allegiance after all these Supreme Court decisions at a time when the behavior of some people from theocracies is so visible and painful to us? We seem to-you know, 535 congressmen standing on the steps saying `Under God … under God.’ They couldn’t say it loud enough.
There’s a reason for the First Amendment, and I’m not sure this is being discussed as thoughtfully as I think it ought to be. I think we’ll be able to do that in a way that’s different, featuring people who haven’t been seen before, people who perhaps haven’t had the kind of exposure some of our other familiar faces have, independent thinkers, people not attached to lobbying, people not attached to groups that make their living off campaigns, people not attached to government, not attached to the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute.
EM: How have you been preparing for the new show? What have you been watching or reading or pondering?
Mr. Donahue: I’ve read Barbara Ehrenreich’s `Nickel and Dimed [On (Not) Getting By in America].’ I’ve read Michael Moore’s `Stupid White Men[: And Other Sorry Excuses For the State of the Nation].’ I’ve read Gore Vidal’s `Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace.’
I’ve always been an op-ed junkie. Most of all, though, I’ve been watching cable. That’s how I got here. I’ve watched cable since 9/11. First of all, I said to myself, `I can do that.’ Cable is different. The time period is different, a lot different. Being live every night is no small thing. You know, I come from the day when we used to bicycle our tapes. … We were in some markets six weeks later. So to have this kind of immediacy and to have the NBC budget and personnel and hardware and satellites all over the world, that’s available to me. And the promotion I’ve had has been fabulous. In my career, whenever I failed or whenever anybody failed, they always said, `Well, they never promoted me.’ Well, I sure as hell can’t say that now. They’ve been fabulous.
EM: Your picture is on bus-stop posters that say “Be Thinkful.”
Mr. Donahue: Oh, that’s interesting. I haven’t seen that.
EM: You don’t get right of approval?
Mr. Donahue: They don’t call me.
EM: What will “Donahue” look and sound like?
Mr. Donahue: Well, we do have the skyline in the background. More often than not I’ll wear a navy blue suit.
EM: Ever going to put on a skirt again?
Mr. Donahue: Probably not. I’ll probably never have male strippers again. I’m saying goodbye to daytime. I’m going to be able to tap dance in a whole new arena at a whole new time with a whole different nation with a whole new agenda of controversy, and it’s got my name on it.
I’m looking forward to those natural highs that you have when you’re driving home after a show when you just know there was no way they could tune you out. I’m not ashamed to tell you that’s a very exciting prospect.
EM: What-or who-will we not see on your show?
Mr. Donahue: I don’t want to get into passing laws on myself. What happens if, you know, male strippers might get to the Supreme Court.
EM: There are people who still hold you and Ralph Nader responsible for Al Gore’s not being able to get into the White House in 2000. Will you have him on the show?
Mr. Donahue: I’m sure we will, somewhere along the way, certainly.
I was out there with Ralph Nader during the campaign talking about corporate greed and corporate control of Congress and corporate ownership of the institutions of our government, blah, blah, blah.
For those who thought we were being crabby, we have one word for them. And it’s Enron. Not to mention Global Crossing and Tyco and, holy smoke, is this the meltdown of the free enterprise system? I do not recall a moment in my life when we’ve had more important, vital, central issues to deal with.
EM: And now many of these issues are dominating the news out of Washington and Wall Street.
Mr. Donahue: Ralph Nader’s too well raised to say `I told you so.’ I don’t know if I am.
But this is a privilege, not a right, to decide who gets on TV, and I have a responsibility to be fair. I don’t think if somebody says the world is round you’ve got to run out and find somebody who’ll say the world is flat. I don’t know if you have to have the yin and yang of every issue on each individual show. I think the test is to review six months or a year of what we’re doing and then tell me whether or not you think we’re biased.
As I say, I’m very pleased to be granted this opportunity from a very powerful media group that certainly knows who I am. And now everybody is just going to have to hang on and see how Phil does. This is going to be at the very least interesting and a very, very exciting ride for me.
EM: Democrats, especially those with presidential ambitions, are taking off the gloves and criticizing the administration. Does that affect the territory you want to stake out?
Mr. Donahue: I think it does. Lately you will see more and more people on television criticizing administration policy, so it is a little easier now to stick your head above the foxhole without being accused of being anti-American-which I have been [accused of]-without being accused of blaming the victim.
It is getting more, how do we say, cacophonous.