Friday, July 12, 2002
Secaucus, N.J. In the beginning, there was Phil.
History reminds us that on Nov. 6, 1967, "The Phil Donahue Show" premiered.
Then, 29 years and nearly 7,000 shows later, after a million audience members had passed through his studios in Dayton, Ohio, then Chicago and New York, he taped his final "Donahue" on May 2, 1996.
By then, the genre he pioneered ï¿½ the syndicated weekday talk show with audience interaction and viewers phoning in ï¿½ was jammed with tawdry alternatives.
"The daytime arena changed, the ground moved under my feet," said Donahue with a knowing laugh, "and I was glad to leave."
Now he's back, ready to start anew Monday night on MSNBC, a cable network that wasn't born yet when he last asked, "Is the caller there?"
Since its July 15, 1996, sign-on, MSNBC has spun its wheels in competition with CNN and especially Fox News Channel. Now it hopes to gain traction with a revamped schedule on which "Donahue" will occupy a key position.
During the same period, Donahue said he was happy learning how to sail and not wearing a necktie. He threw in with Ralph Nader's third-party presidential bid, which in November 2000 received 3 percent of the vote. Last September, like millions of others, he was rocked by the terrorist attacks.
Soon after that, corporate corruption and scandals in the Catholic church began to grab headlines. Donahue felt like getting back in the talk-show game.
"There was never a smorgasbord of issues in my lifetime like we have now," he said.
Much ado awaits
In his freshly claimed office at MSNBC headquarters, he outlined "Donahue" redux: news-based, most often live, no studio audience for him to dash up and down the aisles of. It will be, he promised, "a thoughtful program that we hope will feature lots of voices. We're gonna spend a lot of time on what ails us" as a society.
Airing at 7 p.m weekdays, the new "Donahue" will pit the old master against cable-news talk champ Bill O'Reilly on Fox and CNN's recently acquired marquee talent, Connie Chung.
So here he is, a TV veteran who in December will turn 67, reprising his act on a medium usually beholden to the next new splashy thing.
And, most intriguingly of all, he remains a self-avowed, unapologetic liberal ï¿½ not exactly commonplace on TV, however vilified by some the media may be for its supposedly liberal slant.
"Much buzz!" Donahue said. "'Here comes the liberal. Will he be fair? Will he be messianic?' I don't think conservatives have to take this test. They're not scary. Liberals are scary. Liberals challenge the present order, and we cannot be surprised that they're not very celebrated."
Conservatives are the norm
By contrast, conservative pundits are on a winning streak.
Witness the success of the Fox News Channel personalities, who, like their network overall, have scored with a "fair and balanced" claim that, by implication, demonizes other outlets for leaning to the left. If liberals were celebrated, instead of suspect, wouldn't scads of them already be on the air?
"How would we know?" Donahue said. "We've never really given anybody a chance, have we? (Paul) Begala, (James) Carville," he said, citing the designated liberals on CNN's weeknight "Crossfire" talk show ï¿½ "these are centrists."
How, then, will warm-and-fuzzy Phil, TV's new-old face of liberalism, fare against "The O'Reilly Factor" and its host's hard-nut, "no spin" populism?
Maybe Donahue will be the next has-been. Or maybe he will be the beneficiary of an enduring cultural truth: Everything old is new again.
Of course, Donahue's participation in the Nader campaign isn't necessarily a plus, as he is the first to admit. "That's not a hot launching pad for talk-show faces at this moment in our national life."
Or is it?
"For those who said to us during the campaign that we didn't appreciate the capitalist system, that we were whining, we have three words: Enron, Tyco, WorldCom. This is HUGE, this business scandal," Donahue said. "One after another.
"Many people told me, 'I agree with everything Ralph says, but I wouldn't vote for him.' What are we ï¿½ lemmings? What's the point of a free and open democracy if it's gonna be controlled by two corporate-sponsored (political) parties?"
So maybe this is Donahue's time again, liberal stand and all.
"I feel a lot of pressure to perform," Donahue said. "But there's a huge audience out there who wants public officials to be challenged." A lot of viewers who may actually embrace someone "who tells them what they don't want to hear. And I think it's growing."