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Four reasons why Jesse Ventura’s MSNBC show will be a hit, and four reasons why it won’t

By Stephen Silver

It was announced last week that former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura has reached a deal to host a nightly talk show on MSNBC. Here are four reasons why Ventura’s show will be successful, and four reasons why it will not:

Pro: Cable news shows these days rise and fall on the personality of the host- and Ventura’s greatest strength throughout his career (whether in wrestling, radio, or politics) has been his unique, iconoclastic, and unpredictable personality.

Con: But that’s a personality of which Minnesota voters quickly tired, which is the biggest reason why he declined to seek re-election rather than face near-certain defeat; the same is certain to eventually happen at the national level. And what about Ventura’s frequent off-the-cuff, anti-PC comments? Is MSNBC prepared to fight an advertising boycott each time Jesse insults the Irish, or another ethnic group?

Pro: While the failure of Phil Donahue’s show on the network proves that there’s next to no viewer demand for left-wing ideology on cable news talk shows, Ventura’s brand of centrist, anti-establishment, libertarian politics may very well strike a chord with news junkies sick of both the left-leaning mainstream and Fox’s conservative slant, those who are eager to hear thought-provoking arguments not normally put forth in the medium.

Con: There’s no evidence that such viewers exist in any significant number. If Fox’s success has proven anything, it’s that the members of the cable news talk show audience aren’t interested in “learning” or in “questioning things”- they’re there to hear their own beliefs barked back at them. And liberals don’t fit into this equation, since they’ve already shown that they’d rather watch “The West Wing” (or, for that matter, “Joe Millionaire”) than CNN. Fox News has done an able job in filling the demand for hostile right-wing programming (as best exemplified by Bill O’Reilly’s brand of not-so-compassionate conservatism) which, once again, simply isn’t there for either left-wing or centrist material. Exhibit A for the latter is center-dwelling “Hardball” host Chris Matthews who, despite hosting a show that’s as well-known as anything on Fox, gets clobberred nightly in the ratings by the FNC “debate” show that’s hosted by Sean Hannity and his prison bitch, Alan Colmes. Since “Hardball” is anything but a pure ideological organ (and at least partially due to Matthews’ anti-war stance), it’s fallen way behind “Hannity & Colmes”- and Ventura is due to take over Matthews’ timeslot.

Pro: But at least a small measure of O’Reilly’s success has come from the host’s toughness, stubbornness, and mean-spiritedness. Ventura’s got a well-known propensity for all three, on top of the sort of physical presence that’s bound to intimidate guests into telling the truth. Besides, there are tons of guests who it would make logical sense to see Jesse interview, from future political star Arnold Schwarzneggar to Vince McMahon to new Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Con: O’Reilly may not be any smarter than the college dropout Ventura, but his strength is his skill as a debater. O’Reilly’s guests rarely get the better of him, but if Ventura uses a similar format it’s likely that a great many of his opponents will out-talk and generally embarrass him. Which can only be harmful to the fortunes of the show, especially at the start.

Pro: MSNBC is littered with the bodies of the hosts of ill-conceived talk shows, from Mike Barnicle to Alan Keyes to Donahue. Ventura’s show looks more promising than any of those- and besides, doesn’t the law of averages prove the network will eventually break its losing streak?

Con: It may just prove that the MSNBC has been doomed all along to eventual failure. When even the network’s flagship, “Hardball,” is in 3rd place each night, it shows that MSNBC may simply be beyond help; Ventura’s been described as their last, best hope to stay in business. Whether he was the right choice remains to be seen, though let’s not forget that the last time Jesse and NBC were in business together was the XFL, which is generally regarded as the most sorrowful debacle in the history of network television.

MSNBC is my favorite of the three cable news channels and I very much hope that it stays in business, and as an on-again-off-again fan of Ventura ever since his wrestling days I do plan to watch. Like President Bush, Ventura’s at his best when people underestimate him- after all, it still hasn’t sunk in for me, five years later, that he was actually elected governor of Minnesota. There is a chance that his show will catch on, but I certainly wouldn’t be making any wagers to the effect that it will, or (for that matter) that MSNBC will even still be on the air this time next year. Even less likely to succeed? The rumored new primetime show to be hosted on the network by Sam Donaldson. Why would anyone who didn’t watch Donahue watch Donaldson?

Perhaps what MSNBC needs is some sex appeal, which they’ve clearly been missing ever since Ashleigh Banfield all but disappeared from the air a few months ago. Ventura’s certainly not the one to provide it, and neither is Donaldson. How about a new nightly show co-hosted by comely correspondents Campbell Brown and Norah O’Donnell, who both have brains and knowledge to go with their looks? They can also toss in Dan Abrams, for the ladies.

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About Stephen Silver

  • Henrik Mintis

    I believe the following statement was unfair.

    O’Reilly may not be any smarter than the college dropout Ventura, but his strength is his skill as a debater.

    Mr O’Reilly has a B.A. in history from Marist College, an M.A. in broadcast journalism from Boston University, and another M.A. in public policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard College [Townhall.com].