Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Speak Up on Talk TV

Magazine article Insight on the News

Americans Speak Up on Talk TV

Article excerpt

Political TV talk shows often are more refined than their radio counterparts. But like talk radio, cable TV's public-affairs programming fills a void left by the major networks.

What hath C-Span wrought? The public-affairs cable channel subsidized by the cable industry now is an important feature on the political landscape. While C-Span's direct, unfiltered coverage of Congress, political campaigns and policy events has become a nationwide resource, its daily Washington Journal -- with viewer call-ins from around the country -- has become an on-air meeting ground for those who avidly follow U.S. politics. But a click or three of the remote control shows that similar programming has taken root across the cable spectrum.

The Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the two relative newcomers to all-news public-affairs programming, both use political chat and viewer input. The Fox Network's Fox News on Sunday has moved in on the Sunday-morning turf previously owned by venerable broadcast institutions such as Meet the Press and Face the Nation. (Sunday-morning network talk shows are rebroadcast by C-Span on Sunday afternoons.) CNBC, originally created as NBC's business-oriented cousin, devotes the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. heart of its evening schedule to Equal Time and Hardball With Chris Matthews, two half-hour Washington-based political talk shows. The conservative NET/ Political NewsTalk Network is transforming itself into America's Voice, a more nuanced experiment in viewer-interactive programming on political affairs. Under the leadership of cable veteran Bob Sutton, who replaced activist Paul Weyrich as CEO, America's Voice is adding radio personalities such as Michael Reagan to its lineup.

The ongoing decline of the major news networks boosts the appeal of these shows. "Any time there are stories that are moving and then something breaks that afternoon or evening, that's when our audience is big," says Matthews of CNBC's Hardball, which he describes as "kind of a racy Nightline." Viewers "look to us to bring them up to date on something that just popped."

These shows can have an effect, at least in Washington, where stirrings of political gossip always are welcome. Recently hardballer Matthews, the San Francisco Examiner bureau chief and former chief of staff to House Speaker Tip O'Neill, asked U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson if he will run for higher office, perhaps on the ticket with Democratic presidential hopeful Al Gore. While Richardson backed off, this was enough to start a flurry of speculation concerning Richardson and the 2000 election.

On the other hand, some are more interested in inquiring into the news than making either news or trouble. It would be "very un-C-Span-ish" for anyone from that scrupulously neutral channel even to comment on the other shows, laughs Connie Brod, executive producer of Washington Journal. However, she tells Insight, "it is interesting to see more and more talk shows that are picking into different parts of what the Washington Journal does." But more so than the other cable shows, Washington Journal occupies a unique niche as the televised public-affairs show closest to matching the fervent loyalty and participation that talk radio inspires in its audience.

This is no accident. C-Span is "photographed radio," says conservative radio talk-show host Barry Farber. The concept is not unknown. Talk-radio megastars Rush Limbaugh -- unsuccessfully -- and Don Imus -- more successfully -- have taken their radio shows onto television. Washington Journal, like the rest of C-Span, is not monitored by the Nielsen ratings, but it has developed a loyal following who wreak havoc wherever local cable companies attempt to remove the channel.

C-Span, which often takes its cameras directly into radio talk-show studios, has itself expanded into radio. Last year, C-Span purchased the University of the District of Columbia's radio station to broadcast C-Span programming. …

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