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The Ruminator: Cable news is going about it all wrong

Jul 15, 2002  •  Post A Comment

If you think summertime is the time when all TV execs head to the south of France until Labor Day, think again. For cable TV news titans, summer has become show time!
Both MSNBC and CNN, running way behind in the ratings to upstart Fox News Channel, are in the middle of their latest new-and-improved lineups.
On MSNBC, or as it now calls itself, “America’s News Channel,”-oh, how Ted must hate that-it’s a total makeover. It’s now talk … not news. Ironically, of course, MSNBC actually used to be called America’s Talking.
In the afternoon, we now have Curtis & Kuby. Who are Curtis & Kuby? They are the morning talk team on New York’s WABC radio. While they seem to entertain each other, it is an act that is made for radio. Then there’s Jerry Nachman. He is the former New York Post editor who earned TV news spurs at Washington’s WRC-TV and in New York at WNBC-TV and WCBS-TV. After his, “2 to the bone” act wore thin at the CBS flagship, Nachman went West to try his hand at showbiz. But Jerry missed Gotham and the news business, so he got hired earlier this year as some kind of super-executive at MSNBC, and as part of that, the network gave him his own show.
A show of his own
Yup, starting today, this guy who is helping run the place gets a show too. Nachman has already been on for special coverage and even hosted a bit. Judging by what he’s done so far, Nachman’s a big nada. He hasn’t had anything interesting to say unless, of course, you care about New York restaurateur Elaine Kaufman’s impressions about what’s going on. But Elaine hasn’t been hot since Woody Allen was cool.
Nachman will be followed by the return to TV of 66-year-old Phil Donahue. His ad campaign basically consists of two words-“He’s baaackk.” While there is no doubt that Phil is a TV legend, it must be remembered he left TV because no one was watching him and his Russian sidekick from Brooklyn. Maybe Phil can reclaim the magic of the pre-Oprah ’70s and ’80s, but it is hard to see him getting those 18 to 45 or 25 to 54 demos the advertisers want.
Following Phil will be “Hardball With Chris Matthews.” The Ruminator sort of likes Chris. It is seldom that someone on TV asks questions and then answers them himself. Is this a special talent? Damn straight. But Chris’ numbers at his present 7 p.m. Eastern time slot on MSNBC are nothing to write home about-and that’s against “ET” and “Access Hollywood.” At 9 p.m. Eastern time it’s against “The West Wing,” “CSI” and Larry King over on CNN. And there is one more talk duo coming. MSNBC has hired CNN “Crossfire” alumnus-and evermore presidential candidate-Pat “Maybe He’s Deep Throat” Buchanan and Bill Press to add some spice following Curtis & Kuby.
Somewhere on Sixth Avenue Fox News chief Roger Ailes has to be laughing. MSNBC was born when Ailes lost a corporate power struggle with NBC News chief Andy Lack. Ailes had started the aforementioned America’s Talking for NBC Cable. Lack convinced his GE masters, who own NBC, that news, not talk, was the way to go. So Ailes went and created his talk concept for Rupert Murdoch. I guess Lack’s new motto is, “If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.”
No column on all these cable news changes can end without a word or two about CNN’s newest prime-time star-Connie Chung. You’ve read the reviews on it. With its giant tabloid graphics and its old and tabloid stories it is a show that is being remodeled even as I write this. The Ruminator has never been a fan of Connie Chung. But you don’t need me to tell you that her show was even worse than I imagined it would be.
Her main strength is reading. On cable, most stars are those who can interview. That is something she can’t do unless she’s backed by a first-rate production team. First-rate production teams are not there in cable news. So Connie is lost. As for ratings, Connie has to fight “Friends,” “Survivor” and on cable Bill O’Reilly and now, Phil Donahue. It’s a tough assignment. CNN, in the post-Ted Turner era, has decided to hire TV names to do TV shows. That’s the right idea.
The wrong people
Unfortunately, they’ve hired the wrong people. B-level former network hands such as Chung, Aaron Brown and Paula Zahn won’t cut it. They are not the Courics, Sawyers, Jenningses or even the O’Reillys. So, mark my words, we’ll see a whole new cast of characters on both CNN and MSNBC come next summer. And come to think about it, I expect to see a whole new group of executives making those calls.
For now, though, pass the cognac. I’m headed for the south of France.