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Prime Time Rosie?

Having lived in MediaLand for years now, I've learned to maintain an ironic detachment from the day-to-day shocks and outrages and trumped up controversies.

For the most part, they're contrived little "Can you believe this?!" stories designed to drum up interest and ratings. TV executives learned long ago that we're a nation of rubberneckers, waiting for the next two-ego pileup to occur. ("Coming up next: Coulter vs. Edwards, Round 2!!")

Late last night, though, the scuttlebutt circulating around MediaLand actually caught me off-guard and made my jaw drop.

Rosie O'Donnell may be going to MSNBC.

The New York Times led off its coverage by taking the MSNBC Woos The Left angle:

Riding a ratings wave from "Countdown With Keith Olbermann," a program that takes strong issue with the Bush administration, MSNBC is increasingly seeking to showcase its nighttime lineup as a welcome haven for viewers of a similar mind.

Lest there be any doubt that the cable channel believes there is ratings gold in shows that criticize the administration with the same vigor with which Fox News's hosts often champion it, two NBC executives acknowledged yesterday that they were talking to Rosie O'Donnell about a prime-time show on MSNBC.

Then the Hollywood Reporter weighed in with the Nothing's Official Yet piece:
Rosie O'Donnell is in negotiations to return to television with her own weeknight talk show on MSNBC.

O'Donnell left "The View" in the spring after a stormy one-year tenure and has since been courted by other networks. If a deal is reached -- and one is not at all certain -- O'Donnell might get the 9 p.m. slot that would put her up against Fox News Channel's "Hannity & Colmes" and CNN's "Larry King Live."

I could handle most of the arguments that O'Donnell espoused on "The View" – aside from the 9/11 conspiracies and other tin-foil hat sermons – since it's healthy to have a robust dialogue between the political sides in this country. Her back-and-forths with Elizabeth Hasselbeck, where they teased out the terminology of the war in Iraq, were fascinating encapsulations of the two schools of thought.

But her presentation, shall we say, leaves a little bit to be desired. It reminded me of what I wrote in this space about Air America radio, after its new VP called its original format "extremist."

As far as this writer is concerned, the new direction at Air America is a good call, if for no other reason than business sense. The old way clearly didn't work. The people who call themselves 'liberal' or 'progressive' are not one audience block. Just as there are many shades of red in conservative America, liberals are a diverse group of people whose world view leads them to identify with the blue staters.

The audience that Air America originally catered to – as far as this writer could tell from occasional listens — were predominantly engaged (enraged?) and activist liberals. In other words, the true believers, the pamphlet-pushers. By focusing their content on this audience, Air America ended up turning off other liberals searching for left-oriented content, sure, but also entertaining material .. not the strident stuff they got with the original regime.

If MSNBC follows through with O'Donnell, they will be diving into the deep end of pamphlet pusher programming. Which will work to a certain niche demographic, but I'm not sure it will result in a ratings success story. It didn't for the red-meat radio audience.

As for the argument that 'if it worked with Keith Olbermann, let's try it with Rosie," Olbermann's appeal lies in the fact that he is snarky, thoughtful and intelligent – with occasional strident "Special Comments" that shore up the left, but don't turn off the left-leaners. And the very fact that they're utilized so sparingly gives them a certain power. But with Rosie, you'd have strident commentary each and every night — she hasn't shown the capacity to shift rhetorical gears in recent years.

While Rosie's passion and strong feelings are her main appeal for the liberal bloggers, I'm not sure that an in-your-face liberal will work on TV. It hasn't yet. (And yes, O'Reilly somehow continues to pull it off on the right side, mostly because of his populist "Who's Looking Out For You" rhetoric.)

Without a doubt, there's gold in them there ideological hills. And there certainly is a left-leaning audience that will welcome an overtly partisan approach – particularly with the Republican brand in crisis. But will those viewers be able to handle Rosie's style night in and night out?

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