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'Whipping boy' whips up a new show

Geraldo Rivera, tired of 'getting made fun of,' has a program he says emphasizes substance over show biz.

October 31, 2005|David Bauder | Associated Press

EDGEWATER, N.J. — Geraldo Rivera is returning to daily syndicated television, but not to the world of flying chairs, broken noses and transvestite makeovers.

His news program "Geraldo at Large" debuts today, and the star attraction describes it as an action-oriented half-hour similar to the weekend program he was doing at Fox News Channel.

The return to the limelight happened unexpectedly for Rivera, 61, who had resigned himself to finishing out a colorful career in the relatively low-profile weekend Fox gig. A year ago, he said he turned down an offer to remake the daytime talk show that ended in 1998 after 11 years.

"I couldn't do it," he said. "I couldn't bear it. It doesn't matter if the money tree is growing in the backyard."

Although he defends his old show as better than it was given credit for, he didn't want another run of Geraldo jokes.

"I'm tired of getting made fun of," he said. "The reason I took on the New York Times as ferociously as I did is that I'm tired of being the little icon that people stick pins in, the whipping boy for everything that's gone wrong in this business. Whatever my excess, I think that I've been trumped in many areas by others."

Rivera oddly found himself as the sympathetic figure in a struggle with the Times, which said he had nudged aside a Hurricane Katrina relief worker to make his own on-camera rescue. The Times later acknowledged there was no nudge, that the comment was "a figurative reference to Mr. Rivera's flamboyant intervention."

Still, Rivera has made an easy target through the years, often because he affixed the bull's eye to his back himself.

Rivera talked about his new show from a deck overlooking the Hudson River and the New York skyline at his co-op complex in New Jersey. One co-op is his home, another an office -- filled with a wide-screen TV set tuned to Fox News, several portraits of sailboats and one large painting of a nude woman.

No, Geraldo wouldn't identify her.

The latest opportunity came suddenly, after "A Current Affair" was canceled. Fox News chief Roger Ailes, with whom Rivera has had a seemingly unlikely professional friendship since the early 1970s, suggested "Geraldo at Large."

It's something different for the syndication market, a news program similar to Fox News Channel or CNN fare. It's also the first foray into programming at the Fox broadcast stations for Ailes, who has recently taken over that responsibility; there are persistent rumbles that he'd one day like to start a nightly Fox newscast.

Rivera will command a team of reporters, most prominently Fox's Laurie Dhue, and begin most broadcasts on location at a major story. Most of the 30-minute shows will have three main stories, with a rapid-fire review of the day's big news.

It's serious business. But Rivera isn't blind to certain television realities.

"If Anna Nicole Smith wants to talk to us about her case going to the Supreme Court, that could be fun," he said. "Or if Pamela Anderson wants to talk about her stalker, that would be fun.... I'm not going to be silly about it."

One particular challenge will be his time slots, which are all over the clock. In New York, for example, "Geraldo at Large" will air at 4 p.m., opposite "Oprah," while in Los Angeles it's at 11 p.m. following the local news on KTTV-TV Channel 11. Airing a news program 10 hours apart on two separate coasts will test his ability to be timely. Rivera said he will go live at 4 p.m. Eastern time, then probably record a separate West Coast version a few hours later.

It's an interesting format for a syndication market starving for new ideas, said Bill Carroll, analyst for Katz Television. One positive is Ailes' strong track record for creating shows that people want to watch, he said.

"Certainly, anything Geraldo does is not going to be under the radar," he said. "At a time when it is difficult to break through the clutter, no one will accuse him of being the quiet one in the back of the room."

No, never. Lately, Rivera has taken to referring to himself as a "warrior journalist" because of his on-the-scene reportage from hot spots like Iraq and Afghanistan. He proudly shows a box of pins he's received from different military units and is angry that his missteps -- like briefly being thrown out of Iraq for outlining future troop movements on TV -- get more attention than anything else he's done there.

"After 35 years in the business, people have different impressions of me, and the ones I want to emphasize are the responsible, the courageous, the patriotic, the sensitive, unafraid, unbiased and unaffiliated," he said. "I managed to do 4 1/2 years at Fox and no one has accused me yet of being a right-wing ideologue. That's one of the few things they haven't been able to throw at me."

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