Talking-head games

Hiring a journalist to host "Big Brother" was just the beginning -- look what's around the corner.

By Bruce Kluger
Published August 30, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Earlier this summer, the CBS television network made a curious personnel decision when it tapped Julie Chen, a newsreader on its morning program, "The Early Show," to co-host the network's hit reality series, "Big Brother." Not surprisingly, the announcement raised eyebrows within an industry that continues to struggle with distinguishing between news and entertainment programming.

Indeed, there is reason to worry. On Aug. 7, the New York Times reported that Chen, embarrassed by material that "Big Brother" writers have asked her to recite, has been editing her scripts in an effort to maintain her credibility as a newsperson.

All of which poses the question: What if this becomes more trend than anomaly? What happens if popular entertainment programs continue to raid the news industry for hard-hitting journalists eager to flaunt their special talents on prime time?

"Jeopardy," with Dan Rather: Say so long to the laid-back, intellectual swagger of Alex Trebek as buttoned-up, slicked-down, staccato-voiced CBS News anchor Dan Rather takes to the podium of TV's longest-running brain game. Eschewing the program's familiar but timeworn question categories ("Potent Potables," "The Bible," "The Letter 'K'"), Rather brings to the proceedings a batch of new thought-provoking mind-benders, tailored exclusively to his life and career -- including: "Favorite Peter Jennings Jokes," "Fun Ways to Say Boutros Boutros-Ghali" and the recurring final "Jeopardy" category, "Possible Meanings of 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?'"

"Entertainment Tonight," with Christiane Amanpour: In the biggest programming coup since the E! channel snagged Joan Rivers for its pre-Oscar telecast, CBS lures award-winning foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour away from the humdrum carnage of Chechnya to the exhilarating battlefront at Hollywood and Vine, where headlines change faster than Matthew Perry's waistline. Enthusiastic E.T. wags reveal that Amanpour will hit the ground running with exclusive stories on Britney Spears' ruminations on the Middle East, the pitched battle between the Koreas over Asia-Pacific syndication rights to "Friends" and a 90-minute investigative white paper, "Gary Coleman and Fidel Castro: Careers in Turmoil."

"Survivor," with Charlie Rose: In a breathtaking season finale to CBS's popular desert island reality show, garrulous chat master Charlie Rose is airdropped smack into the middle of a Tribal Council meeting, where he proceeds to moderate peace talks among the bickering survivors of the Rattana faction. However, the episode is abruptly aborted when, unable to get a word in edgewise, the council votes not to eject Rose from the island, but instead leaps, en masse, into the lagoon and swims for Borneo. (Programming note: Immediately following the show, Rose moderates a 90-minute panel discussion, "Survival: A Human Instinct," featuring anthropologist Richard Leakey, actress Tina Louise and Clinton campaign strategist James Carville.)

"Greed," with Lou Dobbs: Fox TV's fast-paced, money-grubbing quiz show gets a decidedly different spin when CNNfn founder and financial analyst Lou Dobbs steps to the helm. In a complete twist on the old game-show format, Dobbs ushers players to within an arm's reach of a big jackpot and then, without warning, stops the game cold, announcing that the contestants would be better off taking their accrued earnings and investing in rubber.

"When Animals Attack!" with Pat Buchanan: Snarls, growls and bared fangs dripping with blood -- and that's just your host! Be ready to run for cover when the former combative star of CNN's "Crossfire," Pat Buchanan, steps to the center ring of Fox's thrill-a-minute nature series. More than just a talking head who rolls videotape, the blustery Buchanan wades hip-deep into the action. Watch as he holds his own in a ring of rabid pit bulls, goes head-to-tusk with a pack of wild elephants and, in a special segment broadcast via satellite from south Texas, dives into the dirt to single-handedly prevent two dozen Mexican rattlesnakes from slithering over the border into the U.S.

"Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," with Mike Wallace. "Is that your final answer?" asks the pugnacious interrogator, with his trademark squint of incredulity. "Is that really your final answer?" Yes, the hot seat just got hotter as notoriously combative "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace faces off with nervous contestants on the nation's top-ranked prime-time quiz show. If you thought Regis enjoyed turning the screws on contestants as the stakes got higher, check out this exchange between Wallace and a typical million-dollar hopeful:

Contestant: The capital of Senegal? Gee, I just don't know, Mike. I think I'd like to phone a friend.

Wallace: Well, that's interesting, because according to our independent investigation, you have no friends.

Bruce Kluger

Bruce Kluger is a columnist for Us Weekly magazine.

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