Media Circus: Anatomy of a cancellation

How MSNBC's "Edgewise" went over the edge.

By Virginia Heffernan
Published August 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"we have now become the first guests on this show without black mock turtlenecks," Brian Williams announced on July 12 when he appeared with weatherman Al Roker on John Hockenberry's "Edgewise," the MSNBC show that was abruptly canceled a week later. It was a throwaway line: Williams, a student-council-type who sticks with jackets, is the star of MSNBC's "The News with Brian Williams," a standard news show that's always had the network's full support. His appearance with Hockenberry was meant to give a brotherly boost to the network's offbeat, NPR-inspired magazine show, which had bewildered MSNBC brass since its launch last fall. Instead, Williams underscored the difference between the show and the network. Like an artsy kid in a high school full of jocks -- or a black turtleneck in a closet full of suits -- "Edgewise" just didn't fit in at MSNBC.

It wasn't for lack of trying. With a near-evangelical commitment to eclecticism, the producers of "Edgewise" created a show designed to leave no curiosity unpiqued. An hour-long magazine program that aired Saturday and Sunday nights at 8 and 11 p.m., the show combined interviews, short documentaries, performance and commentary; it also took on a dizzying range of topics.

"Our tone was curiosity and fascination rather than hysteria," says producer R.J. Cutler, who came to television after having produced the high-profile documentaries "A Perfect Candidate" and "The War Room." The show's 40 episodes include unnarrated, high-concept segments on cockfighting, Zaire, a pro-life haunted house, Wallace Shawn, Jeff Buckley, assisted suicide and Tiger Woods' caddy. In many ways it resembled "Heat," a radio show, broadcast on public radio, that both Hockenberry and Cutler worked on in the early 1990s. "You can have artistic aspirations on a news show," Cutler says. "We wanted to mix ways of looking at the world. We believed a person who is interested in seeing David Brinkley very well may be interested in seeing Michelle Shocked in the same show."

Critics applauded, film festivals took notice and fans sent worshipful e-mail -- but the network never "fell in love with the show," says Hockenberry. Neither did an appreciable viewership. When the numbers came in -- markedly lower than the fledgling network's already low average -- MSNBC was quick to pull the plug.

Some weeks the show's ratings had been too small even to measure. According to Mark Harrington, MSNBC's president, it is just a question of math. "A once-a-week program was too much of an investment to sustain at this point," NBC News President Andrew Lack adds.

According to "Edgewise" producers, however, the show was perfectly viable; it just needed a little help from the top. "We had a new form, a new network and a new talent," Hockenberry says, referring to himself, a former news correspondent at NPR and ABC and author of "Moving Violation," a memoir, and "Spokeman," a successful one-man show, both of which chronicle his life in a wheelchair. (Hockenberry was paralyzed from the waist down in 1976.)

"We didn't get any cross-promotion" -- on NBC or CNBC. "The show was seen as too out there," says Hockenberry. Cutler agrees: "They were not shy about saying, 'We have no idea what you're doing.'" As a consequence, the producers argue, the management took a laissez-faire attitude toward the square-peg show, which they had given Hockenberry as part of his agreement to work as a correspondent on "Dateline NBC." "The show was the secret they wanted kept secret," says Cutler.

But maybe the turtlenecks could have tried harder with the suits, too. The show's producers, according to Hockenberry, "needed to get into the game and become the darlings of the network." It was especially important, in Hockenberry's opinion, that the "Edgewise" people become TV people. Cutler "came from film, so he was viewed with suspicion ... the burden to schmooze was his."

Curiously, it didn't help that the show became popular with the independent film community, leading to an invitation to show a "best of" tape at the 1996 Nantucket Film Festival. "That was not reassuring to higher-ups," says producer and booker Brad Klein. "They saw it as frivolous and artsy." The eerie subject matter of some of the shows might also have given programmers pause. The July 14 Watergate/Wes Craven show -- a look into "contagion of all kinds," Hockenberry promised -- could not have offered much comfort to programmers looking to warm the hearts of the Microsoft generation.

The show's efforts to combine art and news did indeed produce some weird effects. The title sequence, a jazzy black-and-white montage of parts from a manual typewriter, suggested maverick reporting and archival work; the warm, den-like set, on the other hand, seemed more like a place to watch TV than to broadcast it. After one show's series of still photographs showing Cambodians facing execution under the Khmer Rouge, the return to the buttery colors of Hockenberry's den, and to Hockenberry's own curatorial egalitarianism -- in which all manner of material is "interesting" -- was a little jarring. In cases like this, "curiosity and fascination" may not be motivation enough to assimilate disturbing material, especially when it's set against clips from "Contact" featuring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. When the juxtapositions were this stark, Hockenberry's radio-trained avuncularity was not enough to make sense of them.

Finally, though, it could be that the problem with "Edgewise" comes down to the problem with "edge." "People who really have an edge were like 'pshaw,'" Hockenberry says, referring to responses to the show's content. "The show was made by people who want edge but don't know exactly what edge is." When asked for his own working definition, Hockenberry did not miss a beat. "Nietzsche would say that 'edge' is that moment when the creature has reached the boundaries of its cage and is sniffing in places that might just be meaningless, hoping it's going to reach a new world." Ah ... the kind of concept for which black turtlenecks were invented.

Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is an editor at Talk magazine.

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