brucekluger.com

    Salon.com, August 30, 2000


    Talking Head Games
    Hiring a journalist to host "Big Brother" was just
    the beginninglook what's around the corner.

    By Bruce Kluger


    Earlier this summer, the CBS television network
    made a curious personnel decision when it tapped
    Julie Chen, a newsreader on its morning program,
    The Early Show, to co-host the network's hit reality
    series, Big Brother. Not surprisingly, the
    announcement raised eyebrows within an industry that continues to struggle with
    distinguishing between news and entertainment programming.

    Indeed, there is reason to worry. On August 7, the New York Times reported that
    Chen, embarrassed by material that Big Brother writers have asked her to recite,
    has been editing her scripts in an effort to maintain her credibility as a newsperson.

    All of which poses the question: What if this becomes more trend than anomaly?
    What happens if popular entertainment programs continue to raid the news industry
    for hard-hitting journalists eager to flaunt their special talents on prime time?

    Jeopardy, with Dan Rather: Say so long to the laid-back, intellectual swagger of
    Alex Trebek as buttoned-up, slicked-down, staccato-voiced CBS News anchor Dan
    Rather takes to the podium of TV's longest-running brain game. Eschewing the
    program's familiar but timeworn question categories ("Potent Potables," "The Bible,"
    "The Letter 'K'"), Rather brings to the proceedings a batch of new thought-
    provoking mind-benders, tailored exclusively to his life and careerincluding:
    "Favorite Peter Jennings Jokes," "Fun Ways to Say Boutros Boutros-Ghali" and the
    recurring final "Jeopardy" category, "Possible Meanings of 'What's the Frequency,
    Kenneth?'"

    Entertainment Tonight, with Christiane Amanpour: In the biggest programming
    coup since the E! channel snagged Joan Rivers for its pre-Oscar telecast, CBS
    lures award-winning foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour away from the
    humdrum carnage of Chechnya to the exhilarating battlefront at Hollywood and
    Vine, where headlines change faster than Matthew Perry's waistline. Enthusiastic E.
    T. wags reveal that Amanpour will hit the ground running with exclusive stories on
    Britney Spears' ruminations on the Middle East, the pitched battle between the
    Koreas over Asia-Pacific syndication rights to Friends and a 90-minute investigative
    white paper, "Gary Coleman and Fidel Castro: Careers in Turmoil."

    Survivor, with Charlie Rose: In a breathtaking season finale to CBS's popular
    desert island reality show, garrulous chat master Charlie Rose is airdropped smack
    into the middle of a Tribal Council meeting, where he proceeds to moderate peace
    talks among the bickering survivors of the Rattana faction. However, the episode is
    abruptly aborted when, unable to get a word in edgewise, the council votes not to
    eject Rose from the island, but instead leaps, en masse, into the lagoon and swims
    for Borneo. (Programming note: Immediately following the show, Rose moderates a
    90-minute panel discussion, "Survival: A Human Instinct," featuring anthropologist
    Richard Leakey, actress Tina Louise and Clinton campaign strategist James
    Carville.)

    Greed, with Lou Dobbs: Fox TV's fast-paced, money-grubbing quiz show gets a
    decidedly different spin when CNNfn founder and financial analyst Lou Dobbs steps
    to the helm. In a complete twist on the old game-show format, Dobbs ushers players
    to within an arm's reach of a big jackpot and then, without warning, stops the game
    cold, announcing that the contestants would be better off taking their accrued
    earnings and investing in rubber.

    When Animals Attack! with Pat Buchanan: Snarls, growls and bared fangs
    dripping with bloodand that's just your host! Be ready to run for cover when the
    former combative star of CNN's Crossfire, Pat Buchanan, steps to the center ring of
    Fox's thrill-a-minute nature series. More than just a talking head who rolls
    videotape, the blustery Buchanan wades hip-deep into the action. Watch as he
    holds his own in a ring of rabid pit bulls, goes head-to-tusk with a pack of wild
    elephants and, in a special segment broadcast via satellite from south Texas, dives
    into the dirt to single-handedly prevent two dozen Mexican rattlesnakes from
    slithering over the border into the U.S.

    Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with Mike Wallace: "Is that your final answer?"
    asks the pugnacious interrogator, with his trademark squint of incredulity. "Is that
    really your final answer?" Yes, the hot seat just got hotter as notoriously combative
    60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace faces off with nervous contestants on the
    nation's top-ranked prime-time quiz show. If you thought Regis enjoyed turning the
    screws on contestants as the stakes got higher, check out this exchange between
    Wallace and a typical million-dollar hopeful:

    Contestant: The capital of Senegal? Gee, I just don't know, Mike. I think I'd like to
    phone a friend.
    Wallace: Well, that's interesting, because according to our independent
    investigation, you have no friends.
Illustration by Jennifer Ormerod/Salon