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RIVERA VOWS TALK SHOW TO BE HOT, HEAVY

Times Staff Writer

A television critic’s nightmare has become reality: Beginning at 9 a.m. today, Geraldo Rivera will appear five days a week on Los Angeles’ KTLA Channel 5.

Rivera--a highly theatrical journalist whose programs score big in the ratings but are despised by much of the press, whose recent live specials include “Sons of Scarface: The New Mafia,” “American Vice: The Doping of America” and “The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults"--turns talk-show host with “Geraldo,” a syndicated hour blending topical reportage with studio-audience discussion.

Like “Oprah Winfrey” and “Donahue,” “Geraldo” is launching himself in the talk-personality game using only one of his names. But there, Rivera said, the similarity ends.

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Rivera said that his style will more resemble newsman Ted Koppel’s on “Nightline” than the cozy studio approach of Winfrey or Phil Donahue. Using news footage and occasional on-location shooting, Rivera wants things hot, controversial, visual.

“The danger of a pure studio show is that it becomes like broadcast radio,” Rivera said. His show “takes advantage of the fact that pictures speak louder than words.”

Subjects of the first week of shows: the handicapped and their families; Marla Hanson, the New York model whose face was slashed with a razor; high-tech dating; the medical procedure of using fetal material to treat Parkinson’s disease and its implications for the abortion issue, and “AIDS Assassins,” about carriers of the HIV virus who do not inform their sex partners. “It should be considered a felonious assault, or at least attempted murder,” Rivera said.

(On most of the approximately 60 stations signed up to carry it, “Geraldo” will premiere Monday. But because KTLA Channel 5 will be broadcasting Jerry Lewis’ annual Muscular Dystrophy telethon that day, it is launching the show today. Starting Tuesday “Geraldo” will be seen weekdays from 9 to 10 a.m.)

Seated in the sunny roof garden of his penthouse offices in Manhattan, Rivera, in blue jeans and sunglasses, talked excitedly about “Geraldo,” energy seeming to bristle from the pointed toes of his reptile-skin Western boots all the way to the turned-up tips of his bushy mustache.

Long associated with ABC News and its “20/20" news magazine, Rivera is excited about the prospect of a daily talk show.

“Being on television every day allows you the chance to influence the national dialogue, to have some influence on the way people think about the issues, maybe give them an alternative choice,” he said.

He has big plans for the show. One story he wants to do is on “the AIDS kids” of Arcadia, Fla., who contracted the HIV virus through blood transfusions and were rejected by neighbors and schoolmates. The family made recent headlines when their home mysteriously was gutted by fire.

“When we take the show on the road, I’m going to try to have a studio audience also, even if I have to put up a tent and do a tent show,” Rivera said. “If we go to Arcadia, we could do it right in front of the burned-out house. Cameras, a studio audience of neighbors and others . . . that’s not a bad idea! Maybe we’ll do it.

“I’ve lived most of my life as a newsman traveling around, doing shows on the road. I want to get closer to the story.”

Rivera won’t get quite as close to the story as in his recent live specials, however. The new show will be taped, mostly because stations want the flexibility to air the program at various times on their schedules. Still, Rivera said the show will have the capacity to go live if necessary.

He insists that the show, which will be taped in the evenings and sent to stations by satellite feed at 6 the following morning, will not be edited.

Most critics will not miss having Rivera a little less close to the story than in the past. Despite the former “20/20" reporter’s 10 Emmy Awards, few of his highly-rated specials have won critical support.

Critics sneered when he blasted open Al Capone’s vault--live--only to find dirt instead of secret treasures. Then they were outraged when his “American Vice,” which featured live drug busts, put the faces of those involved on national television before their guilt was legally established; the press trumpeted the resulting lawsuits.

Rivera defends live investigative reports. “It’s like life--it’s tremendously exciting,” he said. “You can’t even afford to sneeze. It’s walking a tightrope--or throwing the dice is probably a better metaphor.”

Rivera strongly believes criticism of “American Vice” last December was unfounded. “All of the lawsuits were dropped,” he said testily. “In that case, I really think the lawsuits were encouraged by the critical climate. Because the show was emotionally criticized, I think, a lot of lawyers on speculation decided to go after us.

“I think the criticism, especially the (Los Angeles) Times criticism, was off-base,” Rivera continued, referring to a particularly scathing review of “American Vice” from Times television critic Howard Rosenberg. In his review of the program, he referred to Rivera as “the human drug, injected into your home like a rusty needle.”

“The critics were everything they accuse me of being--hysterically overstated almost, being so very emotional,” Rivera said. “It’s amazing that I sparked that kind of reaction in a group that is not known for its passion.”

He acknowledged some shortcomings in the program. “What happened was, the action tended to get in the way of some of the more substantive analytical segments we had planned,” Rivera said. “We were too fixated on our own technological accomplishment. But to criticize putting suspects on the air is the height of hypocrisy. The L.A. Times puts pictures of suspects in the paper, every major newspaper in the country has suspects being portrayed.

“We realized what the stakes were. In every case, we insisted there be a search warrant, signed by a judge--not a magistrate, a judge--obtained on the bases of firsthand undercover police (investigations). And I’m telling you, in California especially, every newsman who’s ever covered the beat has gone in on these search warrants, smashing doors, going in with armed personnel carriers. It was just because it was a national broadcast, and so very high visibility, that people reacted to it.”

He has another live special planned for prime time in December, this one dealing with human sexuality. Whether he will do more next year has not been decided yet.

Rivera is a former poverty lawyer who was discovered as a television personality by New York station WABC in 1970 when he became spokesman for a Puerto Rican activist group called the Young Lords, which took possession of a church in Harlem for several days to use as a charity center. Since then, he has championed a fervently emotional style of reporting that he defends as heartily as his live broadcasts.

“The only thing that counts is the accuracy of the facts and the fairness of the broadcast--all the rest is packaging,” he said. “You can choose to package it the way Peter Jennings does, with a handkerchief in the pocket of his tailored English suit, or you can package it the way I do. I’m trying to cut through the bull of it.

“If I wear my emotions or my biases on my sleeve, I think that is more honest than, say, Vietnam coverage with an eyebrow being raised or a sarcastic tone of voice that doesn’t show up in the transcripts. To me, that’s hypocritical; it’s commentary disguised as something grand called objectivity.”

Rivera does believe objectivity is necessary when reporting on political issues. That’s why he doesn’t do politics, he said.

At the taping of the first studio segment of the show featuring model Hansen at Times Square Studios last Tuesday, Rivera’s heart immediately appeared on his sleeve: “She was a beautiful young model on the brink of a promising career when her face was brutally slashed with a razor. . . ,” he began, with grim photos of Hansen’s stitched wounds flashing on the monitor screens.

He doesn’t expect he’ll ever get good reviews. And, after a split-second’s hesitation, Rivera added that he doesn’t really care. “I’d get very suspicious of myself if Howard Rosenberg started liking me,” he said.


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