Phil Donahue says MSNBC's new, fiercely independent positioning suits him just fine. "I haven't been out kissing babies for the last three years," he said. "I've even been booed by my own audience many times."
Donahue's ardent liberalism may be fodder for critics, but he's not apologizing. He campaigned proudly for liberal presidential hopeful Ralph Nader in 2000. He wants church and state kept separate, especially in schools.
Sept. 11 pushed the country well to the right, he says. "No one wants to be called a liberal. Conservative is good, and liberal is bad. Conservatives criticize government, and liberals criticize business," he said last week at the Television Critics Tour in Pasadena, Calif. "To [conservatives], we have a few words: Enron, WorldCom."
After a six-year absence from television, Donahue returns July 15 on MSNBC. His new cable show, Donahue, airs at 8 p.m., head-to-head with new CNN star Connie Chung and veteran Fox News conservative Bill O'Reilly (whose O'Reilly Factor
reigns as cable's highest-rated news show).
The former syndication king shrugs off competition in his dog-eat-dog time slot. He doesn't plan to compete with Connie Chung for exclusive "get" interviews, and O'Reilly's style and stance are different. Instead, Donahue says, he is looking to serve the "many Americans that would be grateful for showcasing of voices not often heard on cable." Mainly, his own.
Of course, he'll still try to woo Fox News loyalists. "I hope to grab viewers who are conservative who want to see what an irresponsible liberal will do."
Viewers, however, won't hear Donahue's opinions unchallenged; he isn't planning any monologue. His show will work off the day's news and poll guests from both the right and left.
"He's not going to pontificate," said MSNBC President Erik Sorenson. "He'll be the moderator, but of course you'll know his point of view."
And unlike his syndicated days, Donahue won't showboat for a live audience, although there will be occasional road trips.
At 66, Donahue denies that he's too old to be getting back into TV. "It's certainly true, MTV I'm not. But we're going to find out if it matters." His staff includes several youngsters (along with five staffers from his old show), and he's grudgingly learning how to use a Teleprompter.
Retirement didn't quite suit the fiery host. Sure, it was relaxing to cruise his 56-foot boat up the East Coast to Maine and down to Florida. But, after Sept. 11, Donahue's TV instincts kicked in. "I was struck by the monotone of cable talking heads: Bomb, bomb, bomb. There should be free speech for all Americans unless we're scared."
Donahue now finds himself the centerpiece of MSNBC's transition to the talk-radio format, the one that ratings leader Fox News seems to have perfected. Also debuting July 15 is an afternoon show with conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and liberal analyst Bill Press (both CNN Crossfire
Donahue's lead-in, Simply Nachman, hosted by New York media vet Jerry Nachman, also bows Monday. "These are not people doing relationship shows on talk radio," Nachman said.
Of MSNBC's competition, Nachman sniffed, "[Fox News] designed themselves to be a brash pinball machine … and CNN got a little stuffy and musty, with that Atlanta discount-warehouse look."
Third-place MSNBC needs to claw its way up. Unlike Fox and CNN, it hasn't maintained the spoils of increased viewing post-Sept. 11. MSNBC notched a 0.4 prime time rating in the second quarter, exactly even with its rating a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research. Fox's rating soared 57% to a 1.1 in the second quarter, and CNN increased 33% to a 0.8.
Perhaps learning from Turner Broadcasting Chairman Jamie Kellner, who wrongly predicted last year that CNN would topple Fox's lead in six months, Sorenson isn't projecting when he'll catch the "two Goliaths." The summer relaunch, he will say, will hopefully lead to gains in the fall and beyond.
He bristles at assertions that MSNBC is abandoning its hard-news roots to get there. Live news updates will sandwich talk shows, and he promises that breaking news will always take precedence over programming. MSNBC is changing, he explains, because, by prime time, viewers need perspective on news, not headlines.
"Twenty-two minutes of nightly news or a five-minute radio blast is all viewers need. The news doesn't change much from morning to night."