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Progressive Talk Needs A Dose Of HBO

by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

Magician extradonaire, Ricky Jay, once told me that a comic-magician was someone who didn't know magic well enough to be a magician and wasn't funny enough to be a comedian. Still, he had to be smart enough to know what didn't work.

I am a liberal talk show host/ TV writer/ columnist/ author, which tells you that I am not good enough to be only one of them. But I know enough to know when something's not working well. And liberal talk isn't working well╔yet. And if it keeps trying to be the right wing talk for the left, it will be nothing more than a bad copy. Anyone remember any of those shows that tried to copy "Seinfeld" or "Friends?" Searching for the liberal Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or even Michael Savage, is just as wrong-headed as looking for the non-neurotic Larry David, and it risks turning off the its potential audience, and for years to come.

Most liberals won't believe someone who tells them they're right 99 percent of the time, especially when it means that the "other side" is wrong 100 percent of the time. But that's been the template for successful talk radio over the past fifteen years. It feels great when your side wins, that your righteousness is right. But when it's that way every day (or even only three hours a day), a liberal begins to get suspicious. It doesn't pass the common- sense smell test. No significant amount of the liberal audience would think that reading newspapers is unnecessary because they can get all they need to know from some Left Limbaugh. From Jon Stewart, maybe, but that's only because he admits he's a fake.

Air America has opened the door for Progressive Talk, but how do they keep it from closing on Al Franken's fingers? With its small window of opportunity, it might be time to take a risk╔and a tip from HBO.

I once asked HBO head honcho, Chris Albrecht, what kind of "notes" he gave to the his shows' producers. ("Notes" are time-honored methods for business degree'd, TV network executives to feel creative by placing their stamp on -- or what TV writers call "ruining" a show.) Most of these notes are more laughable than the sitcoms they're attempting to fix. "Make the joke 5 percent funnier" or "A Martian wouldn't say that," are just a couple of the actual classics (for lots more factual ridiculousness of what makes TV a failure sport, see "A Martian Wouldn't Say That" from Tallfellow Press).

Albrecht said that he never gives notes; that the show's creators know what they're doing more than he. After all, that's why he brought them on in the first place. In lieu of notes, what Albrecht does is remind the creator of what made the show special and sparked their passion in the first place; what they thought would make people actually pay to watch; what made the HBO slogan, "It's not TV. It's HBO."

The lesson of HBO's success is not that it copied network TV, nor attempted to get network numbers. It just tried to produce quality work. The Clear Channel, Premiere Network, and Air America program directors should take a tip from HBO. While there may never be a liberal Limbaugh or one show that delivers Hannity's numbers, but maybe an alternative would work: a great deal of smaller liberal originals.

Liberal talk has already taken some of the risks by letting some hosts be their own special product. Jones Radio's Stephanie Miller and Ed Shultz don't exactly profess to be the be-all, know-it-alls as most of the Right's Lords of Loud. But they certainly are entertaining, and that gets listeners.

There is no need for Liberal Talk to win over one big audience. A bunch of smaller, zealous audiences can add up to one big liberal success. And for that, the shows have to be good most of the time, not right all of the time.

Now, I have this idea╔.

Steve Young, author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" can be read every Sunday in the LA Daily News Op-Ed page (right next to Bill O'Reilly)

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Albion Monitor November 23, 2005 (

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