Anderson Cooper tries lighter approach on daytime show ‘Anderson’
One of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” has just described how she agrees with Bravo’s decision to air the show in the aftermath of the suicide of Russell Armstrong, husband of one of the housewives, when Anderson Cooper breaks in with a query.
“I’ve been touched by suicide. My brother committed suicide when he was 23 and I was 21,” Cooper said, citing his well-known personal history. “The question is: Is reality television the best forum to bring it up?”
As viewers of his prime-time CNN program “Anderson Cooper 360" will quickly recognize, the moment is vintage Cooper: a journalistic interrogative cloaked in emotional and even personal garb.
But Cooper isn’t sitting in the anchor’s chair at a leading news network. He’s standing next to a studio audience at a New York taping of “Anderson,” his new syndicated daytime talk show that premieres Monday on Fox’s KTTV-TV in Los Angeles.
For years, Anderson Cooper has delighted fans and irked skeptics with his brand of Oprah-esque, I-feel-your-pain journalism, interviewing disaster victims around the world with his trademark concerned eyes and sympathetic tone. Now he’s inverting the formula, bringing a little bit of journalistic rigor to daytime television.
“There are plenty of things in daytime that are not hard at all. You can do celebrity interviews and just have people come by and pitch a movie,” he said in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is more complicated — to have something that’s both entertaining and informative.”
In undertaking the experiment, however, the 44-year-old raises a slew of questions — about the effect of a coffee-table chatfest on an anchor’s news credibility, about the ability of someone known for covering Arab uprisings to appeal to the housewife set; and, perhaps most important, how he’ll fit all this in to his freakishly overpacked schedule.
The idea of a daytime show began to germinate last year, as Cooper’s CNN contract was set to expire. Hilary Estey McLoughlin, the president of Time Warner syndication company Telepictures Productions and the force behind “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” had watched Cooper fill in for Regis Philbin on “Live With Regis and Kelly” and thought he’d make a good host. Telepictures and CNN came up with an unconventional package: Cooper would stay on at CNN while also taking on a new talk show.
“He’s funny and self-deprecating and women really respond to him,” Estey McLoughlin said.
There are plenty of flashes of that humor and likability as Cooper interviews various “Housewives” cast members at the taping. But the host’s typically rigorous questions and occasional mild snark could play differently on daytime. Indeed, one of the housewives, Lisa Vanderpump, seems a bit put out by a few of the questions and at one point slips in an annoyed quip about Cooper’s grooming habits.
And if Cooper goes too soft (he does spend a segment on a “Housewives” lap dog named Jiggy) it could hurt him with the news set.
“I’m sure there will be people [in the news community] who make jokes,” he said. “But as long as what I’m doing in daytime is true to my interests and there’s something valuable in the topic, I’m OK with it.”
The first week’s guest list offers a glimpse into how Cooper will try to strike that balance. There’s a celebrity story with a news angle (the family of Amy Winehouse giving their first interview since the singer’s death); a human-interest show about two twentysomething women abandoned as infants; and the decidedly more frilly prospect of Cooper going spray-tanning with Snooki. In spots like this, he’s taking an interest in the absurd, evidenced by his “Anderson Cooper 360" segment “The Ridiculist,” to a whole new level. (Producers say they generally don’t want to do any political show unless there’s a high-impact personal story in an election year.)
The only comparable daytime show might be Phil Donahue’s, though Donahue never had to do double-duty from global disaster areas.
Indeed, how Cooper will handle the workload remains a critical question. Shooting two shows in one day (as he’ll do every Tuesday) or even three shows (as he’ll do Thursday and Friday, which each feature a doubleheader of “Anderson” tapings in addition to “Anderson Cooper 360"), can lead to a breakdown. He already joked to the audience that he’s getting less sleep than ever and downed an energy drink for the first time a few days ago.
Logistics could prove even more complicated. Cooper may be the hardest-working man in broadcast journalism — he also shoots several “60 Minutes” packages each year — but even he can’t be in two places at once. The anchor is frequently dispatched to the field, as he was during the Haiti earthquake, which makes a daytime talk show in a studio overlooking Central Park in New York a little tricky.
Producers on “Anderson” have set up a system under which Cooper could theoretically tape shows or segments from the field, though they acknowledge they haven’t figured out all the details yet.
For all his love of the news, one gets the sense that the constant stream of grimness that is the stock-in-trade of prime-time news has been taking its toll on Cooper.
“Part of my motivation for doing this is to laugh more every day, and do things which are more reflective of my full range of my personality,” he said. Sometimes he wants to talk about the debt ceiling; sometimes he wants to hold the dog from “Real Housewives.”
There is also an element of an insurance policy in “Anderson.” The career span of a news anchor can be far shorter now than when Dan Rather and Peter Jennings ruled the airwaves; even in the time since “Anderson Cooper 360" was moved from its 10 p.m. slot to the 8 p.m. slot formerly held by Eliot Spitzer earlier this summer, Cooper has been drawing lower ratings than the former governor.
Cooper said he knows all of this is a gamble, that most daytime shows fail and that his undertaking is more challenging than most.
“We haven’t worked out all the kinks yet,” he said. “But it’s not like I’ve been studying and taking notes and thinking ‘here’s how I’m going to change the format.” And then, in an only semi-credible comment from one of television’s biggest workaholics, he adds, “I’m just going to have fun and hope it all works out.”
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