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Vote with Your Remote: Phil Donahue for National TV Host

Viewers who tune into Donahue’s new talk show will send a message to TV execs that there is a huge audience for unconventional television programming with a decidedly progressive edge.
 
 
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There’s a new election just around the corner, and Phil Donahue is the candidate who deserves your vote. In fact, all of us who are interested in watching stimulating television and hearing independent voices and fresh points of view on corporate TV should tune into MSNBC on July 15 at 8:00 p.m. and weeknights thereafter, to vote with our remotes.

We'll be giving the message to TV executives that there is an audience for unconventional television programming with a decidedly progressive edge that is far beyond what they imagine.

The new Phil Donahue show that debuts next Monday is up against the heavily watched O'Reilly Factor on right-wing Fox News Channel, and a new show on establishment CNN featuring familiar face Connie Chung, who was just snagged from CBS for $2 million a year.

This contest is the clearest national political race since the muddy results from Florida in 2000. Viewers can opt for the conservative O' Reilly; for Chung, the play-it-safe corporate candidate; or for Donahue, who appears ready to speak some truth to power in the populist seat.

Phil Donahue is perhaps the most honest man on television. Despite his strong feelings and opinions, he's incredibly open and empathic, willing to risk his own embarrassment to discover new insights. The Donahue Show was amazingly successful during its 29-year-run, raking in Emmys and dealing with issues like AIDS, feminism and race, and coverage of the 1992 presidential election. The show, he told The Progressive Magazine, "helped bring democracy" to television. "I wanted people from all walks of life to be able to actually use the airwaves that truly belong to them," he said.

Donahue’s openness is one explanation for his high "Q rating," an index TV execs use to describe the warm fuzzies audiences experience. No doubt his new project will be cheered on by a wide array of viewers from many vantage points, from grandmothers, Libertarians and students to union members and women who love the fact that he's stayed married to icon Marlo Thomas (who just happens to have a best-selling book out at the moment, "The Right Words at the Right Time").

According to Newsday, "Corporate power and political pull are topics that will get discussed.... Another current issue that gets Donahue’s motor running -- and is certain to crop up on his show -- is homeland security," a topic that rarely gets the full airing it deserves.

"I think attempts by some members of the Bush Administration to shush public dialogues are not altogether in keeping with the great American tradition... I want to remind people of the Bill of Rights. My goodness, what a wonderful document. It’s not just for good times. It’s for all the times," he said.

Cable news is the Wild West of journalism, where the laws of entertainment rule the range and journalistic ethics pretty much stay on the sidelines. It's an environment in which Fox News has rapidly risen to the top, dominating the ratings game with heavy doses of right-wing politics under the leadership of CEO Roger Ailes, former Republican strategist and media advisor to Reagan and Bush Sr.

When the media reports the numbers and success of Fox, it gives the impression that there is a growing audience for conservative views, when the opposite is likely true. Polls consistently demonstrate that well over 60 percent of the eligible electorate supports policies far more populist than the Bush administration has put forward, from health care and social security to global warming and corporate regulation.

Apparently, one of the methods Fox uses for jacking up its numbers is the heavy advertising dough the network pours into supporting the right-wing talk show hosts, especially Rush Limbaugh, but also G. Gordon Liddy, Oliver North, Michael Reagan and others. Even though Limbaugh is not as visible as he once was, his alleged audience is in the 15 to 20 million range. Limbaugh goes so far in supporting Fox that he plays the TV network as background to his radio show and provides running commentary as to what is on the air.

Of course, no television program is capable of inciting revolution. But the stranglehold that corporations and incumbents have on elections and media coverage precludes opportunities to build momentum around an alternative view of the world. The startling success of Michael Moore's book, "Stupid White Men" is one signal that there is an audience out there hungry for some unconventional wisdom.

Donahue told Newsday, "I know there are uncounted millions out there who have ideas and concerns that aren't finding expression on cable."

But Donahue faces a daunting challenge. In the 8:00 p.m. time slot recently, on the night Connie Chung premiered, the O’Reilly show drew 2.2 million viewers; Chung 850,000 and Brian Williams, whom Donahue is replacing (and who in turn is eventually replacing Tom Brokaw) was at 570,000.

Overall Fox is way ahead in the ratings with 45 percent of the cable news viewers. CNN has 36 percent and MSNBC a woeful 18 percent, so there is nowhere to go but up. MSNBC, owned by mega-conglomerate General Electric (which owns NBC) with Microsoft an investor, is backing Donahue with reportedly the largest marketing budget ever for a cable news show. That will help give him a chance to build an audience for a set of values and ideas not often aired on corporate-owned networks.

In New York and in other cities, a smiling Phil Donahue greets you at the bus stop. Let’s hope Phil’s still smiling a year from now and his show is the hottest thing on TV, leaving Fox and O’Reilly in the dust. And you can help make that a reality. Send this article to your friends and vote with your remote on July 15.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.