USA Today, January 30, 2003
Why do mean-spirited TV shows lure Americans?
By Bruce Kluger
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 news—which 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
King can land Liza Minnelli for an entire hour, or Chris Matthews can (once again)
scream at political guru Pat Caddell?
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 decimates—not 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 chaos—cautioning against speculation, sticking to facts—O'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 men—one favoring a Palestinian state,
one opposed—both 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-spiritedness—and 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 champ—or keeping a runner-up
on the air—are about as likely as Greta Van Susteren's old face suddenly
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.]