USA Today, January 30, 2003

    Why do mean-spirited TV shows lure Americans?

    By Bruce Kluger


    Your parents lied to you: Sometimes the bad
    guys do win.

    Now that the Fox News Channel has won the
    battle for cable news supremacy by breezing
    past MSNBC and CNN in the ratings, it's time
    to review how it made such a remarkable
    leap. To do so sheds new light on the state
    of cable newswhich isn't good.

    For several years, the industry has toyed
    with abandoning newscasts in favor of nightly
    lineups crammed with clamorous political
    crossfire and sleepy-eyed sit-downs with
    stars. Not surprisingly, none of this seems to
    bother viewers. Who cares how many nukes the North Koreans have when Larry
    King can land Liza Minnelli for an entire hour, or Chris Matthews can (once again)
    scream at political guru Pat Caddell?

    Fox has found its niche in this disturbing transformation, capitalizing on the very
    real notion that Americans embrace acrimony over civility and conflict over
    resolution. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the yin-yang styles of Bill O'Reilly
    and Phil Donahue.

    First O'Reilly. Perched high on the bully pulpit of his nightly Fox fight-fest, The
    O'Reilly Factor, the staunchly right-wing host invites onto his program a vast array
    of ideological adversaries whom he usually decimatesnot by relying on the deft
    maneuvers of substantiated debate, but by the sneaky craft of chronic interruption
    and well-placed commercial cutaways. Yet his attack-dog style has earned him the
    status of the most-watched talk show host in all of cable news, spawning a spate of
    ill-tempered imitators, mostly on Fox.

    Simply put, O'Reilly has done for chat TV what Rush Limbaugh did for talk radio
    namely, help transform the constructive buzz of the public square into a noisy,
    messy melee. To wit: Right after the 9/11 attacks, while other shows tried to extract
    order from chaoscautioning against speculation, sticking to factsO'Reilly
    devoted a series of programs to who was cheating whom out of relief money. On
    one, he mocked Americans seeking psychological help in 9/11's wake, calling them
    "weak." His ratings soared.

    Meanwhile, just a few remote clicks away at MSNBC stands Phil Donahue, the
    godfather of talk TV. Donahue turns down the piercing volume of the O'Reilly-type
    mob and turns up the intelligence, selecting panelists for what they have to say
    instead of how effectively he can belittle them.

    On one program, he tackled the Israeli-Palestinian debate by presiding over a
    wrenching discussion between two Jewish menone favoring a Palestinian state,
    one opposedboth of whom had lost a child in the conflict. Which is not to say
    Donahue plays it safe. The only full-throttled liberal on talk television today, he was
    among the first of the talk show hosts to denounce a war on Iraq.

    Donahue is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of conversation: genuine, affable, well mannered
    and well informed. But the magic ain't working this time. By year's end, his audience
    of 379,000 was about one-sixth of O'Reilly's 2.4 million on Fox.

    Therein lies the problem: Donahue has not lost one bit of smarts since his heyday.
    American TV has.

    Twenty-five years ago, viewers were enchanted with Donahue's brand of audience-
    roaming, mike-waving, levelheaded give-and-take. But that format mutated into the
    dirty-laundry-airing chaos of Jerry Springer and Sally Jessy Raphael. Columnists
    and politicians denounced these programs, and many of them disappeared. But the
    gratuitous mean-spiritednessand American viewers' obsession with it -- has crept
    over into network TV, where audience hits such as Survivor, Fear Factor and Joe
    Millionaire rely on generous doses of embarrassment, failure, duplicity and shame.

    Will the Phil vs. Bill paradigm reverse anytime soon? Are you kidding? The chances
    of any TV executive pulling the plug on a ratings champor keeping a runner-up
    on the airare about as likely as Greta Van Susteren's old face suddenly
    reappearing.

    Then again, one can hope. Since 9/11, Hollywood has done some soul-searching,
    wondering out loud whether it can churn out blockbusters that don't rely on stars
    wielding Uzis. Perhaps the cable news industry can do the same by examining the
    violence that thrives in the words of Bill O'Reilly.


    [On the day this essay was published, Bill O'Reilly invited Bruce Kluger onto The
    O'Reilly Factor to discuss the piece. Bruce accepted the invitation. Click here to
    see a related story by Bruce that appeared in The Los Angeles Times, as well as
    the video of Bruce's appearance on the show.]
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