NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Mick Jagger has been knighted again, but not by the British Empire. This time around, it's the American TV empire where network executives hope the venerable rock star will boost ratings on The Knights of Prosperity, one of the many new shows to debut as the fall TV season gets underway.
And prosperity is what all the networks are wishing for this fall as they hope to cash in on the 24 phenomenon - Kidnapped traces the ever surprising twists of an abduction that turns out to be much more than it seems - and the Lost phenomenon. The Nine follows the lives of strangers caught up in a bank robbery that turns out to be much more than it seems.
And favorites Grey's Anatomy, House, and CSI's Las Vegas, New York, and Miami are all set to return. And there are two - count them - two new TV shows about TV shows that bear more than a passing resemblance to Saturday Night Live.
Later in our program, we'll meet the director of a new TV documentary about a generation of South African revolutionaries: The Twelve Disciplines of Nelson Mandela. But first, the new season on TV.
What do you look forward to with interest or with dread? Give us a call. The number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail - later. And we'll begin with Jonathan Storm, the television critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer, who's with us from the studios of member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Nice to talk to you again, Jonathan.
Mr. JONATHAN STORM (Television Critic, The Philadelphia Inquirer): Hello, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thanks. And since it debuts tonight, why don't we start with Aaron Sorkin's much ballyhooed return with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip? Let's listen to a clip.
(Soundbite of TV show, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”)
Ms. AMANDA PEET: (As Jordan McDeere) Let's not have another meeting like that again, okay? It just makes my job harder.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
Mr. MATTHEW PERRY: (As Matt Albie) Why do I care about your job being harder?
Ms. PEET: (As Jordan McDeere) Because you don't know it yet, but I'm going to be your dream come true.
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt Albie) Appreciate the sentiment, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Ms. PEET: (As Jordan McDeere) Yeah, I get that a lot.
CONAN: Hmm. Amanda Peet and Matthew Perry. Is Studio 60 the next big thing?
Mr. STORM: No.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STORM: But, boy, is Matthew Perry good in it. Wow-wee, he really walks a fine line as a genius TV writer - tormented, yet overflowing with humanity. I wonder who that could be based on.
CONAN: I can't imagine where that came from. Aaron Sorkin writes it, you say?
Mr. STORM: Yes he does.
CONAN: Ah-ha, funny about that. This is his second TV show about TV shows.
Mr. STORM: Yes, it is. His first show Sports Night was funnier and probably a little fresher. This - don't get me wrong. The show is very good, way above others, but it's got a lot of the smell of The West Wing on top - on it.
Mr. STORM: I mean, it's almost as though, you know, we've moved from worrying about the chief executive to the executive producer.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: That's kind of a step down, but they might be a little bit more focused. I understand it begins the season with a rant, though.
Mr. STORM: Yes, it does. Put Judd Hirsch in the Emmy nomination bucket for next whenever they do it. He is the long-time producer of a show which is not Saturday Night Live, because they do make reference to Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live. It's a Friday night sketch show. And he's mad as hell and can't take it any more and has an on-air meltdown, which is really pretty good even if it's not exactly representative of what's going on on television today.
CONAN: Hmm. As we mentioned, there are two shows loosely based on Saturday Night Live, one of them from SNL alumna Tina Fey. She stars as the stressed-out lead writer for a workplace comedy. Let's listen as she grapples with a fellow New Yorker in the lunch line.
(Soundbite of TV sitcom 30 Rock)
(Soundbite of horn honking)
Ms. TINA FEY (Actor): (As Liz Lemon) Whoa, excuse me. There's a line, buddy.
Unidentified Man #1: I'm just getting a hotdog.
Ms. FEY: Well, you think there's two lines? And we're all in this line, and you're the only genius that got in the other line? Do you believe this guy? Don't line up behind him. He cheated you.
Unidentified Man #1: Hey, shut up.
Unidentified Man #2: What do you want to do, lady?
Ms. FEY: I want all the hotdogs, please. Yeah, I...
Unidentified Man #2: Aw.
Ms. FEY: ...I'm buying all the hotdogs.
Unidentified Woman: Come on, lady.
Unidentified Man #3: You have to do that. Come on.
Ms. FEY: I'm giving them to the good people.
CONAN: And this one is set in New York. It's called 30 Rock. Sounds pretty funny.
Mr. STORM: It's very good. Tina is stressed out. She'll be more stressed out. She's the executive producer, writer, star. I think she also (unintelligible) Chinese food delivery. She does everything on this show, and it's going to be hard for her. But I think from what I've seen, it's a funny show, and both these shows are better than Saturday Night Live. So that's sort of sad.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation - 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. What are you looking forward to either with interest or dread as the new fall television season gets set to debut? Jeff is with us, Jeff calling from Lake Tahoe.
JEFF (Caller): Yeah, hi, thanks for having me on the show.
JEFF: Long-time listener, first-time caller.
CONAN: Well, thanks for both.
JEFF: I wasn't supposed to say that. I'm actually looking forward to Lost. Like I can't stand it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JEFF: Season two finally came out on DVD, and it's - we've had it and watched most of the episodes already, even after watching them on the DVR twice. Should be fascinating to see what happens with the Others, with Michael and Walt leaving the island, if they actually come to rescue the other folk.
CONAN: Lost is one of those things that people just can't seem to figure out, Jonathan Storm.
Mr. STORM: I have a question for him. So he's watched it twice on DVD and once on DVR, the first time it went around, and my question is do you really know what's going on?
JEFF: I - well...
(Soundbite of laughter)
JEFF: Well, there's the speculation, sure. We always have the - we come up with two or three different things every time, and do you remember that from last episode, and yea and nay. You know, I think that, sure, that the plane crashed because of the magnet.
JEFF: That's what I think, and it'll be strange to see after, you know, the close of last season with it blowing up again. Is there another plane coming?
Mr. STORM: Who knows? My favorite part of Lost is all the stories of all the different characters who are so the most disparate group of characters in the history of a TV drama. I like it when they go back and show what these guys did before they got to the island, much as used to like...
JEFF: Yeah, the back-stories are great.
Mr. STORM: Yeah, yeah.
JEFF: I think In A Case(ph) was one of the more interesting ones, and it ties in with - pretty much with everybody. As everyone kind of, you know, they've seen each other in the airport or they briefly talk. It's a really well written, very well tied-in episode.
Mr. STORM: Yes.
CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much. Have a good time.
JEFF: Thank you for the call, Neal. Bye.
CONAN: The Lost spin-off this time - the new Lost, if you will - seems to be a show called The Nine.
Mr. STORM: Well, it's definitely not a spin-off, even though it's made by the same...
CONAN: Of course not a spin-off, but the same idea.
Mr. STORM: Same idea. Made by some people - the woman who's the executive producer is a rookie executive producer working with her brother who's more experienced. And she had a friend who went on a blind date, and at the end of the terrible blind date - at the end of the blind date - they were mugged. And she talked later with her friend, and they didn't really like each other that much. A year later, they got married. And this woman's whole idea is what kind of relationship do you develop when you share a trauma? And this trauma that these people share is being held hostage in a bank for 52 hours.
CONAN: Hmm. As you looked - you get to see all these pilots one right after another. It must be tremendously exciting.
Mr. STORM: It is. I love it.
CONAN: And which ones are you looking forward to?
Mr. STORM: Well, certainly The Nine. The Nine is not only an interesting concept, but it's very well - excuse me.
(Soundbite of throat clearing)
CONAN: That's Okay.
Mr. STORM: You had that guy on a couple of weeks ago, and he never got the frog out of his throat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
The Nine - it's the way that it's structured and the way that it's shot, and it's just such a beautiful show. And, of course, then there's a really great story as well. So I'm really looking forward to that one probably most of all. One that you haven't mentioned that's coming on tonight - it's just a sitcom, but it's an awful good one - called The Class. It's from David Crane and Jeffrey Klarik. David Crane was one of the co-creators of Friends. And this time instead of six young adults, there's eight young adults. They are - meet at a third-grade, 20th reunion, and they go from there. It's just - it's a very sweet - and it's certainly the best sitcom this year and one of the better ones in a long time.
CONAN: Let's get Scott on the line. Scott's calling us from Milwaukee.
SCOTT (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.
SCOTT: I don't even - I think this answer is just sort of cheating because the show I'm going to mention it's in a whole another category. It's The Wire, on HBO.
Mr. STORM: Oh.
SCOTT: And I'm astonished that NPR hasn't done a show entirely on this program because it deals with so much public policy, the characters are astonishing, it gives a personal side to the streets, and I can't wait to watch it every week.
Mr. STORM: I think Terry Gross had David Simon on.
Mr. STORM: I'm not sure.
SCOTT: And he's the executive producer or the writer?
Mr. STORM: He's the writer and executive producer.
Mr. STORM: That - The Wire is one of these shows that's just so good that nobody watches it. It's beyond...
SCOTT: I think (unintelligible).
Mr. STORM: ...it's almost beyond HBO - being as complicated and as, as you say, totally relevant in terms of its social structure and not watched. Maybe it's too hard. Some people say it's because it's got too many African-Americans in it and...
SCOTT: It is recondite, but I would say that the characters are so compelling that you will want to stick around and find out what's going on. And I think it's on the verge of becoming quite popular.
Mr. STORM: Hmm. I...
SCOTT: And I would just like to say that - what is most interesting to me is the acting - is far and way what makes it most interesting to watch. And my favorite character is Cutty.
Mr. STORM: It should be on the verge of popularity. I lament that something that's already been on for three years and isn't popular, it's pretty hard for it to catch on. It's one of my favorite shows. But again, it's one of those shows that I don't watch because I kind of forget it's on HBO, and I lose track of it - perhaps because there isn't a lot of buzz about it. It could be the best show on television.
CONAN: Hmm. Scott, thanks very much.
SCOTT: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. And speaking of things you don't watch, what's one that we might want to try to avoid?
Mr. STORM: Well, it's very interesting this year, Neal. I had a story in yesterday's paper about TV dramas this year. There isn't one terrible drama out of 16 that they made. They didn't make one bad one. It's not that they're all really beautifully written and compelling, but they've learned to spend their money wisely and make things that are great to look at. It's sort of like you have me here from the studio.
Mr. STORM: I'm still saying the same stupid junk I always say, but it sounds better because we've got all this technology. And they've really - TV somehow has figured out how to make TV, finally. All that said, if it's not well written, eventually it kind of falls on its face. And I think there's one that's coming on Wednesday on CBS called Jericho - they're in Kansas, a little town that's isolated, and apparently there's a nuclear war going on everywhere else, and they run around. There's one tomorrow night on CBS - poor CBS - they can use some failures. They've got - they've been so successful for so long.
(Soundbite of laughter)
They got Ray Liotta and Virginia Madsen - two of the great actors of right now - in this sort of dark and not really very interesting show about a mastermind criminal. I'm not looking forward to that. And of course, a couple have already come on on Fox.
Mr. STORM: Happy Hour and ‘Til Death, the Brad Garrett show - the big guy from Everybody Loves Raymond. I'm not even looking backward to them.
CONAN: Jonathan Storm, thanks very much. We look forward to your next visit.
Mr. STORM: Thank you.
CONAN: Jonathan Storm is a TV critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and he joined us today from the studios of our member station in Philadelphia, WHYY.
When we come back, we'll be joined by NPR's entertainment correspondent Kim Masters to talk a little bit about what the studios and the programmers are doing. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We're talking about TV today. The new fall season is underway. TiVo's everywhere will struggle to keep up with the new shows and many of the old favorites. Joining us now is Kim Masters. She's our entertainment correspondent. She joins us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, and nice to have you back on the program, Kim.
KIM MASTERS: Yes, thanks for inviting me.
CONAN: and it's not only a question of producing these programs, it's where you put them in the schedule. Now last year, for example, ABC had an enormous hit with Grey's Anatomy - I guess the last two years - and now they're sticking it up in Thursday nights against a powerhouse.
MASTERS: They are sticking it up against CSI, at least, and now there's talk from Fox that they may move American Idol, the results show, to Thursday night. And, boy, I'll tell you that kind of talk is like - it's sort of the equivalent of trash talk, you know, in the network world. But it is - American Idol is such a season-altering phenomenon when it comes on the air in January that all these other networks now have to look at that and say aye aye aye.
You know, already NBC was going to put Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - the new Aaron Sorkin show, on Thursday - and moved it when ABC moved Grey's Anatomy. So it's really - with just the broadcast networks, it's hard to figure out what's where. And when you add the cables, it is Chinese chess, you know, three-dimensional chess.
CONAN: This is network throw-down, I guess.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: It is. I mean they just have to sit there and worry. I mean here is NBC struggling to get its foothold. They've Got My Name Is Earl and The Office on Thursday night. What if they move, you know, American Idol?
MASTERS: What if? Then what happens? They already moved it once because they were scared of having them killed by American Idol. So these things are - they're still in flux despite the fact that the season is premiering tonight.
CONAN: Hmm, and not only do we have those big-three networks that everybody knows about, there are whole new ones.
MASTERS: Yes, well, there's the CW, which is sort of a new one. They're trying to portray themselves as a new one - and they have lovely green, you know, colors and logos. And they're - you know, Free To Be is their big thing. They're free to be this, free to be that. But a lot of it is free to put back shows that were already on the UPN and the WB. And what you've got is - you know, it's kind of a crisp thing, but it's a strange amalgam, too, of sort of sitcoms and wrestling and dramas that are aimed at teenagers, and it's kind of an odd thing. But I will say I think their branding has been quite impressive.
CONAN: Mm-hmm, and as you look around, there are all these fringe - you know, they don't think of themselves as fringe - but a lot of cable networks that are trying to break into the game and get some significant numbers.
MASTERS: Yeah, I mean I don't envy any of these guys because the - if you look at the network schedule, there are such big shows on, you know, most - prime time is just not that big of a piece of real estate. So I don't know where you - even like you take ABC. They have this show, Ugly Betty, which they have high hopes for. It's based on a telenovela, and it's supposed to be this sort of Cinderella thing. And they've been, you know, trying to find a place for that. Again, they have placed that on Thursday night - so again, the American Idol threat would mean where are we going to put that now?
And if you look at this grid, which I happen to have in front of me, you sort of think, well, where the heck would I put a new show and hope to survive?
CONAN: And it's not easy, is it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
It's very, very hard. And this Thursday night thing with Grey's is going to - even by itself is enough to have caused problems.
CONAN: And since at least 98 percent of the country can't figure how to record one program and watch another one at the same time, it could be life or death.
MASTERS: Well, there is talk that this kind of thing is very disruptive for viewers, and it does make it hard for them to find shows. And the other thing that is going to be a problem for them, is the fact that there are - you know, the critic earlier was talking about Lost. I mean and the caller was so involved in Lost.
There are a lot of serialized dramas this year, dramas where the storyline continues. And it's, you know - I was talking to a CBS executive who was saying that, you know, most people, even with TiVo, if they have it - and the penetration isn't that great - could fit, what, two, three, maybe four of those into their week as an appointment to watch. But with all of these new shows -these Jerichos, and Smiths, and Justice and, you know, all of this stuff - I don't know how viewers… I mean it's going to be - there might be a number of quality shows, but, boy, I think it's going to be very tough.
CONAN: Hmm. Let's get Charles on the line. Charles is calling us from Portland, Oregon.
CHARLES (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm a - have been a big West Wing fan, and so when I heard about Studio 60, I was eager to see how it was - and surprised, delightfully surprised - as a former marketer and a Netflix subscriber - that NBC and Netflix came up with… I'm wondering if it's some new and innovative marketing scheme where Netflix had the pilot episode of Studio 60 and Kidnapped on DVD and was - had it available about three or four weeks ago. And it sort of worked. It worked for me, because when I got them through Netflix and watched them both and thought, OK, I'm hooked.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: They'll be thrilled to hear that at NBC. Yeah, this is part of a thing. I mean if I showed you the press releases I have from the networks in the last week or so - the Internet deals, the, you know… One of the ways they're trying to counter that fear - that you won't get locked into the serialized drama, like Studio 60 - is they're just going to reach out however they can and say, here, we'll give it to you on Netflix. A lot of them are saying you can watch it online. You can watch it online before it premiers on the network.
MASTERS: Anything to make it possible for you to figure out what their show is and stick - and get wedded to that storyline and stay with it. That's really the name of the game. And as ad dollars migrate to the Internet, the networks have been in a frenzy to figure out how to get people who may be, you know, part of a fragmenting audience to watch their shows on the Internet, on the network, somehow just to get your attention. So I can promise you that NBC, which has had a uphill struggle, would be very happy to hear that someone got hooked into Studio 60 because of the Netflix deal. I don't know whether it's an overall success.
CHARLES: OK, thank you.
CONAN: Happy viewing, Charles.
CHARLES: OK, bye.
CONAN: Speaking of fragmented audiences, are the networks really in competition with each other anymore? Aren't they - hasn't CBS decided we're going to be the old-person's network?
MASTERS: Oh, God, no. CBS would not want to hear you say that. They will say they're the everybody network and that they're, you know, they were the old-person's network for a long time. You know, they had Murder She Wrote and that sort of thing that was considered skewing to an older audience. I think they're trying to - they've done actually a great job. They've been dominating. You know, they've been very successful. So, no, they don't want to be the old-person's network. They're still chasing that younger demographic. I think it's arguable that, you know, as the baby boomers age, they should be programming to baby boomers, but...
CONAN: Mm-hmm, just programming to the largest demographic bulge in history.
MASTERS: Yeah, what a concept, right?
MASTERS: People who have, by the way, tons of - I mean I just had this conversation with an executive at CBS. He claims they want to program to that demographic, but the problem is that advertisers are skeptical. They think you've chosen your toothpaste if you're over a certain age, and you're not changing. And I think that's scientifically not very valid, but that's a point of view that the networks claim to be battling against. So they do chase the younger viewers.
CONAN: Clearly he hasn't tried to buy a tube of Ipana lately.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: No, maybe he has. I don't know. Maybe he has it stockpiled.
CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Anna. I'm looking forward to Battlestar Galactica, one of the best-written shows on TV, on the Sci-Fi Channel. I will miss Rescue, and is Boston Legal coming back?
MASTERS: You know, I have to say that this is - she touches on an issue that is another concern with all these serialized dramas. A lot of the people who watched certain serialized dramas that died before they came to their conclusion, feel betrayed and let down.
MASTERS: So the networks are also trying to figure out, well, gee, can't we just go online and post something, you know, that will tell you, yes, in the end the murderer was Joe. You know, something that you won't feel so ripped off...
(Soundbite of laughter)
…because that has been something they've been really worried about. Battlestar Galactica has a big cult following. It's one of those things - you know, that's how cable shows break out. I know a lot of critics are bitter that they were - they haven't had Emmy recognition. And I'm trying to see - what were the two shows she's asking about? I'm trying to see if Boston…
CONAN: Well, she said Rescue, and I - does she mean Rescue Me?
MASTERS: I think - maybe it's the one that was on - I don't know.
CONAN: I don't know.
MASTERS: I guess so...
CONAN: And the other one...
MASTERS: ...and I don't have the whole cable thing in front of me. Boston Legal is on at this point. It's on CBS. I'm sorry, it's on ABC...
MASTERS: ...on Tuesday night.
CONAN: All right, let's get Patty(ph) on the line, Patty calling us from Bend, Oregon.
PATTY (Caller): Hi, yes. And where I live, they've moved Desperate Housewives to a ten o'clock Sunday night slot, and I just nearly died. I thought why did they move it from 9:00 to 10:00, because the only two shows I watch on television are Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. And I'm in the senior set.
CONAN: Would that have anything to do with the recent changes of rulings by the Federal Communications Commission (unintelligible)?
PATTY: That's what I want to know.
MATERS: You know, I don't know. I'm looking at my schedule, which I think is really quite recent, and I have Desperate Housewives coming on at 9:00 before Brothers and Sisters - which has been this kind of troubled show that's supposed to have Calista Flockhart and Sally Field and has been on the operating table...
MASTERS: ...to the point where they barely got the pilot out. The story with Desperate Housewives has been a feeling that it was starting to wobble a little bit with its storyline and get a little bit off track. And they've brought Marc Cherry back to, try to, you know - they can ill afford to lose Desperate Housewives as a - you know, ABC needs that badly. So the question that we've heard is, you know, is this sort of mixed buzz on whether Marc Cherry is - with the stuff they've shot so far - bringing the show back or making it too broad?
MASTERS: But I do not see it on at ten o'clock, so I'm trying to figure out where that might - why that might be.
PATTY: Well, I'm on the West Coast, you know, and…
CONAN: Well, so is Kim Masters.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MASTERS: I mean, I'm looking at a schedule that is a CBS generated thing, so I don't know. Maybe something strange is going on, but I don't have it on at 10.
PATTY: And there's a huge cult following of Desperate Housewives here in Bend, so. Thanks so much. Great show.
CONAN: All right, Patty.
CONAN: Bye-bye. E-mail from Warren.
It's on already - though on cable - but I'm enjoying the second season of Weeds - surprising sense of verisimilitude in this black comedy.
MASTERS: Well, okay. I mean, I have to tell you, I've not watched Weeds, but I know a lot of people are really into it. So I'm going to have to get that DVD.
CONAN: Kim with us. Kim calling from Sandy, Utah.
KIM (CALLER): Yes. I'm just curious to know if we may be seeing the end of the absurd plethora of reality shows and - in my opinion, they represent the decline of human civilization, and I hope they're on their way out.
CONAN: Yes. Is Tucker Carlson on Dancing with the Stars? Is that the sign of the apocalypse yet?
MASTERS: The end.
(Soundbite of laughter)
KIM: Perhaps between that and whatever it is, you know, people will eat anything disgusting and gross for the sake of winning money, I think just -that has to be close to bottoming out.
CONAN: Hmm. Interesting that she says that given the brouhaha over Survivor's new decisions this season, Kim.
MASTERS: Yeah. And Survivor just premiered somewhat disappointingly to CBS, so they were not rewarded for their stunt. But, you know, the reality is - I wouldn't say it's going away. I'd say it's not the red hot sizzling item that it was. It's still very much there. And, you know, I think - even though they ate fish eyeballs last night on the Amazing Race, which is quite disgusting - a lot of these shows, especially on ABC, are not quite as, you know, eating worms-oriented as they were. You know, now you have the home makeover and this sort of - you know, on NBC you have The Biggest Loser, which is - you know, they're not like, you know, freak shows or mocking people as much. I think ABC for sure has decided that the money is in more uplift.
So you'll see them, but, you know, I think certainly with Survivor that did not payoff to the degree that they had hoped. But they're not going away. I mean, we don't have Fear Factor on now, but I think they'll bring it back when stuff on their schedule now starts to fail.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. And what kinds of risks are they taking? This is such big money that people are risk adverse. They want to put on something they think is going to be pretty sure.
MASTERS: Well, there's no such thing as sure. I mean, if they knew that they'd be much happier and much less, you know, prone to nervous conditions. I don't know. I mean, you do see some shows that look risky. I think that Twenty Good Years with John Lithgow and - help me - Jeffrey Tambor.
CONAN: Tambor, yeah.
MASTERS: That's a real anomaly. That's a show - you know, not to put too fine a point on it - starring what is considered two old guys by anybody in television. I guess they're expressing confidence in the concept, the writing, the comedy of these two well-established stars. But boy, you won't see a lot of that kind of thing. So, you know, you do see some anomalies, but by and large these guys are not so much about risk.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Kim Masters, thanks very much. Appreciate your time.
MASTERS: Thank you.
CONAN: Kim Masters covers the entertainment industry for NPR. She joined us from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And joining our line up now here in Studio 3A in Washington is David Folkenflik, NPR correspondent who covers the media and the arts. Nice of you to be with us.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Good to join you.
CONAN: And a couple of weeks ago, CBS launched its new evening news with Katie Couric - as we switch from entertainment to the news business, really. This going to be a smart decision for CBS? She finished first, what, the first three nights in a row.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, this is what we call a major gamble. They're essentially taking the franchise and giving it to the person who had fueled NBC's most profitable news show, the Today Show, and was familiar to many, many more Americans than almost anyone in the business and certainly a lot more than Bob Schieffer, who had been filling the role after Dan Rather left the anchor position.
Is this going to be a good idea? At the moment, it's a bit of a seesaw. An editor and colleague here described it as sort of water sloshing around in a bucket. You know, it's not clear exactly where it's going to end up. A number of stories came out after her first few days of triumph, when people were sampling her for the novelty. And they said, oh, Katie's back to number three. On the anniversary of September 11th, people turned to other newscasts more than they turned to hers. And yet, a few days later last week, she popped up again in the top and second spot.
It's not clear exactly where it's going to end up. It is clear that CBS is putting a ton of its money, most of its prestige, and almost of all of its marketing on the idea that she is going to lead them into a new generation. Don't forget, ultimately the same people who run the entertainment divisions -or oversee the entertainment divisions of major networks also oversee the major divisions of, you know, television news. And they too are concerned about appealing to a younger audience about not having their audience's age on them.
Katie Couric is of a different generation than Bob Schieffer, and they are hoping they help to redefine their audience for news, as they were able to do in the entertainment side.
CONAN: Not just a change in the anchor, the news personality, but really in the content of the program. A lighter program, some say. Somebody described it as 30 Minutes.
FOLKENFLIK: You mean as though it's half of 60 Minutes?
FOLKENFLIK: You know, that's one way to look at. It's a bit more news magaziney. As major newspapers who had to redefine what they do to combat sort of the instant updates of cable news and also Internet Web sites, so too, you know, people aren't necessarily going to the nightly newscasts, the evening newscast to find out what happened over the day. They want to find out sort of what and why and what does it matter. That's sort of what you'll hear from news executives as you talk to them.
Certainly, I mean, 30 Minutes is a misnomer. You're really talking about maybe 21, if you're lucky, minutes. And you're finding these segments on - so far, and it's new - but so far in the Katie Couric-led newscast that are perhaps a little softer. They're a little bit more interviews. They're a little bit more talkers, and it diminishes the amount of time spent on what we would conventionally define as hard news.
Some people see that as a diminishment as what a newscast can be. Others are saying we're reaching people and exploring more issues. This is the way to do it.
CONAN: And we live in a new world where people get their news headlines from the Internet or from, who knows, radio even. There's been a complete turnover now in that venerable - it didn't seem to change for decades. Obviously, I'm exaggerating, but now you do have new anchors in all of the chairs at all of the networks.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's pretty amazing, if I can be a little self-indulgent for a moment, and I tend to be. In the time that I've been here at NPR - which is a little under two years - you see new people in all the anchor spots.
At CBS, Katie Couric, as we mentioned - now in the role that was held by Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite. You have Brian Williams, who had the most seamless transition from Tom Brokaw. It was masterfully executed in a way that has allowed him to continue, apparently, to be the ratings leader at that time of day. And you have Charlie Gibson, who came in after the, you know, tragic, you know, bombing that accorded to Bob Woodruff in Iraq for ABC News.
CONAN: Nice to see a picture of him up and around the other day.
FOLKENFLIK: He seems to be doing much better and has announced plans to rejoin ABC News. And his then co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, who was essentially forced out by ABC after she was soloing and without great success doing that. So there is this very big shift.
Williams and Couric represent, perhaps, a new generation. Gibson in some ways seems to represent the solidity of times past. And viewers seem to be responding to that as well. On the whole - and again we're only talking about a very few short days - but on the whole, people still seem to be turning into ABC as well.
CONAN: We're talking about the new television season with David Folkenflik of NPR News. We're talking about news programming on the networks. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is email@example.com.
And when we come from a short break, we'll also talk about a new documentary about a group of high school friends from South Africa who endured decades of exile to help overthrow apartheid.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of the other stories we're following here today at NPR News. As sectarian violence boils over in much of Iraq, tens of thousands of families are on the move, searching for a safe place to live. Many Iraqi Arabs are fleeing to Kurdistan, a surprising development given decades of brutal Arab rule of Iraq's Kurdish minority.
And computer scientists say they've created a new kind of silicon-based chip that can produce flashes of laser light. Such optical chips could eventually lead to faster computers and telecommunications networks.
You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION at this time, we'll talk about the political battle over terrorism suspects, interrogation, and military tribunals - the uses and abuses of the Geneva Conventions. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
In a few minutes, the Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, a new TV documentary about activism and apartheid and the fight in South Africa. But first, let's continue our conversation with David Folkenflik about the new television season. He's NPR's correspondent who covers media and the arts.
And as you mentioned earlier David, the entertainment heads of the networks oversee the news parts of the operations as well. And over the past years, we've seen sort of news programs developed as entertainment - semi-entertainment vehicles. All the news programs that stretch out for, you know, all that time on the various networks as correspondents bring us, you know, human life stories and crimes and that sort of thing.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. And to be clear, it's sort of you have the same ultimate executives. People like Les Moonves, who are over both kinds of divisions. You know, the news shops themselves are overseen by people who are appointed to be the top journalists.
But there's no question that sort of the definitions have blurred between what is entertainment, what is human interest, what is news to the point where they've become very, very thin membranes. So you can find news magazines like Dateline NBC, where they're essentially exploring true crime. And it could be a Lifetime movie of the week, and it could be something that's quite true.
Most recently, obviously, you see it through the other direction, where news is used as entertainment. Where ABC did sort of this story about the path to 9/11 - not produced by a news division, and, in fact, one in which just some folks inside ABC News had some real difficulty swallowing.
But you're absolutely right that if you watch news division-produced programs these days, you often find things that are very much like what you could find on entertainment shows. If you watch the morning shows, you see makeovers: home makeovers, make-up makeovers, and you know, relationship makeovers. As long as the words make and over are involved, you may well see it.
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CONAN: And it spreads to the straight news programs, too. In the introduction of Katie Couric, we saw a lot of - well, attempts to image her. There was that famous incident over the picture of her that trimmed 20 pounds off her.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, yes. And this was something that CBS news executives said, look this was for essentially internal consumption to CBS and its sister stations. The notion was, you know, that they're presenting her. It turned out they had streamlined her image. CBS at once has been very upset with some coverage that they say has been sexist and that treated her in a way they wouldn't have.
For example, criticized Tom Brokaw, who also came from the tradition of the morning softer show, Today Show. At the same time, they seem to be playing up her attractiveness and appeal. So they seem to be playing a little bit on both sides of that.
CONAN: Both sides. Yeah. Let's get a listener involved. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. This is Joanne. Joanne with us from Milford, Delaware.
JOANNE (CALLER): Hi.
JOANNE: I wanted to talk about this intersection of news and entertainment, because I'm a humanitarian worker who's just back from Darfur. And I was amazed to see that we got more news about Darfur from ER than we got on the news.
CONAN: And that's mentioned - we have various of the doctors of ER going off to perform good service in Africa is what I think Joanne is referring to. And, yeah. I mean, that does cut both ways, David.
FOLKENFLIK: It absolutely does. I mean, one of the interesting things you see -and for example, after Ted Koppel - now a colleague of ours here - left Nightline, you began to see a slightly more news magaziney approach to that once extremely hard-hitting program. It's had some ratings success, and it's continued to do some good journalism.
One of the defenses you saw, for example, was the executive producer James Goldstone cited, hey, we went to do a story on pediatric AIDS on Africa. It's a very serious thing. What he tended not to point out as often was that he was essentially having a crew trail Alicia Keys, the singer, as she explored this issue. You know, one could argue that the old-fashioned news coverage shouldn't be predicated on which issues celebrities tend to pursue.
CONAN: Joanne, thanks very much for the call.
JOANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: Here's an email from Katherine in Berkeley.
One comment on Katie Couric and CBS: no matter what kind of marketing CBS does, I could never take seriously a World News delivered by somebody who had a colonoscopy live on national TV.
That was referring, I guess, back to her Today program years.
I don't know if that was entertainment for some, perhaps, but it does exclude one forever from the likes of Walter Cronkite or John Chancellor.
Mr. FOLKENFLIK: Well, for some viewers, you know, instead of being, you know, Cronkite's that's the way it is, it's a little bit more like TMI: too much information.
Mr. FOLKENFLIK: At the same time, if I recall correctly, that show won either Peabody or Emmy Awards as being a public service. There was what was demonstrably a, I believe found by scholars, to be a Katie Couric effect, where far more people went out and got this colonoscopy as a result.
I don't know why it is it should be predicated on someone famous - a journalist who nonetheless has essentially become a celebrity herself - in terms of personally undergoing it.
But in some ways I think she was trying to remove the stigma from it. And she certainly had a personal tie, given the death of her husband from this terrible ailment.
CONAN: And speaking of Katie Couric, also obviously a turnover at NBC's most profitable program, and that's the Today show with Meredith Vieira coming in.
Mr. FOLKENFLIK: That's right. The Today show has essentially been the financial engine that's driven NBC News in many ways, even as the Nightly Newscast has been the ratings leader as well.
Meredith Vieira, who was with CBS News for years and then was with The View, has made - and again, it's very early, but what seems to be an almost effortless transition. She seemed to have what people good rapport with Matt Lauer. She's been a serious journalist in the past.
And she has been integrated into, you know, what you almost have to think of as the cast of a Broadway musical or a sitcom. They' re trying to figure out who will work with whom. When it's icy, it's instantly evident.
Does it necessarily reflect on their abilities as a journalist? No. But if it interferes with your ability to hear what they're having to say, then it's a problem.
CONAN: David Folkenflik, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
Mr. FOLKENFLIK: Hey, great to join you.
CONAN: NPR's David Folkenflik with us here in Studio 3A.
When we come back, The Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela.
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