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NEWS ANALYSIS

Maria Shriver returns to TV

September 15, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

Tonight on NBC, Maria Shriver offers viewers insight into a heroic comeback from a sudden career setback.

Not Roy Horn's -- hers.

The first lady of California, who made her name as a correspondent for NBC News, returns to prime-time television with "Siegfried & Roy: The Miracle," a one-hour special in which she interviews the Las Vegas entertainers about Horn's recovery from a horrific onstage tiger attack last year. It's Shriver's first on-air broadcast gig since her husband, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected governor, which led her to take a leave from the news division due to conflict-of-interest concerns.

"One of the goals, when the news division suggested that I go on leave, was, 'I'm going to find my way back on the air,' " Shriver told reporters in a conference call last week. "That was important to me because I felt that I still had a lot to give as a journalist."

But at least for this special, it's hard to see Shriver as a journalist. "Siegfried & Roy" is produced by NBC Studios, the network's in-house entertainment production division. The special is a tie-in designed to help promote NBC's "Father of the Pride," the Tuesday animated sitcom from DreamWorks Television that's based on Siegfried & Roy's act and executive-produced by the duo.

While current and former NBC News staffers joined Shriver in working on the special, spokeswoman Allison Gollust said the news division had nothing to do with it.

On the other hand, NBC executives and Shriver clearly don't mind if viewers continue to regard the first lady as a reporter, which could lend credibility to a special that's essentially a promotional exercise. Jeff Zucker, president of the NBC Universal Television Group, told TV critics in July that "Siegfried & Roy" would be produced with the same standards used at "Dateline," the network's prime-time newsmagazine. (An advance tape of the special was not made available.)

The fact that Shriver is married to a movie-star governor -- who was elected amid a blaze of international publicity after his predecessor was ousted in a recall -- presumably stokes viewer interest as well.

"They're trading on her cachet as a newsperson ... and the public's interest in her as the first lady of California," said Barbara O'Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento.

The network has been fuzzy in its public statements about Shriver's employment status. In February, Shriver announced she was leaving the news division for fear that her work would be "constantly scrutinized," given her dual role as first lady and a member of the media. Gollust said Shriver remains an NBC employee but does not work for the news division; she declined to say whether Shriver remains under contract to the network. Terri Carbaugh, Shriver's press secretary in Sacramento, referred calls about Shriver's employment status to NBC.

There have been some awkward corporate moments. "Dateline" in the past has used as hosts Pat O'Brien and Nancy O'Dell, the former on-air team of "Access Hollywood," although neither was an NBC News employee. When a reporter asked in July whether he could explain why O'Brien and O'Dell could be used for a news program but Shriver couldn't, Zucker replied: "Probably not with a good answer."

What's clear is that due to the exceptional circumstances of her celebrity -- she is, after all, both a Kennedy cousin and a GOP governor's wife in a state that is home to the entertainment industry -- Shriver will still have a ways to go if she wants to redefine her career in a way that does not constantly raise ethical questions. As a newswoman, the concern was that her impartiality would be compromised through her marriage to the governor. But her new status as a network pitchwoman, as she appears to be in tonight's show, could make her an embodiment of the entanglement of corporate interests and state politics.

"It seems like she's doing something of an end run back to the TV screen vis-a-vis the entertainment route," said Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley. "One would have to ask, 'Why?' "

Yet the ambiguity of Shriver's current status may be the point. Americans are increasingly coming to accept the blurring of public spheres once kept separate. "For most viewers, there's no longer a meaningful distinction between news and entertainment and politics," Schell said.

That may not bode well for the public interest, but it will benefit Shriver as she redefines her image amid her husband's political success. She says Horn's determination to return to normal life after the attack proved an inspiration. "I wanted to try to resume some semblance of my career. That obviously was a driving force for me."

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