The Onion, the satirical website, declares itself "America's Finest News Source," but such grandiosity may not be all that inaccurate: It's certainly becoming one of America's most popular sources of misinformation.
After wild online success, as well as print editions in several cities (though the Los Angeles version was shuttered a year ago) and a string of bestselling books, the Onion is bringing its acidic, anarchic sensibility to television with two new series: "Onion SportsDome," premiering Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central, and "Onion News Network," debuting Jan. 21 at 10 p.m. on IFC. Not bad for what began as a jokey weekly newspaper created by University of Wisconsin students in 1988.
Both shows are letter-perfect parodies of ESPN and CNN, respectively, cluttered with whooshing graphics and histrionic music tags delivered in a convincing enough fashion that a channel surfer could be forgiven for thinking that they've landed on the real thing. "SportsDome" features stories on a dying girl's wish to attend a baseball game so she can heckle Mets third-baseman David Wright in person, and witheringly condescending coverage of marginally popular sports in America like soccer and hockey. "News Network" offers reports on time travelers plotting to kill Tom Cruise's daughter in order to spare future generations and pundits railing against peace-loving "decoy Muslims."
"Many things we do are spot-on with the other news channels," says Suzanne Sena, who plays "Onion News Network's" preening and fatuously self-important anchor Brooke Alvarez. Sena previously worked for Fox News — "How much did I tweak it?" she asks, answering, "Surprisingly, not that much. We remind you of current anchors."
Sena adds, "When it comes to having the best-looking, most 'knowledgeable' and most controversial personalities, we at the Onion have them all. All the news networks struggle with what's entertainment and what's news, but we just blow that concern out of the water."
Onion Chief Executive Steve Hannah says of his show's anchors, "They are utterly self-absorbed, they're egocentric, they look really pretty and that's important. That well-coifed cluelessness makes the shows so authentic. People will watch these shows and a percentage of them will have no idea that this might not exactly be true. When that happens, it's cause for great celebration."
Executive producer Will Graham, who with Julie Smith in 2007 created the Onion's online news videos (which won a Peabody Award — one of TV's most prestigious prizes — even before coming to television, boasting 10 million unique viewers a month), says, "So much of this is subtext — anchors as vultures. There is that attack, machine-gun delivery on cable news you don't see anywhere else. They're shark-like and abrasive and pushy."
As for "Onion SportsDome," Graham says its inspiration was, besides America's obsession with men playing boys' games, ESPN's "faceless army of rotating anchors" exchanging "inane banter that seems to take up 25 minutes of every hour of 'SportsCenter.'"
Matt Walton, who plays one of "SportsDome's" anchors, admits that it's not a tough acting job emulating the "arrogant" personalities who headline "SportsCenter," saying, "We're pretty much doing imitations of these clowns and it pretty much reads true."
Matt Oberg, who plays Walton's co-anchor, says, "One thing we noticed is their hand-rubbing — they act as if they're applying lotion to their hands; that's pretty much all the acting that's required."
This isn't the Onion's first flirtation with Hollywood — "The Onion Movie" was produced back in 2003, featuring, improbably enough, action star Steven Seagal. After years in limbo, the film was released, direct-to-DVD, in 2008, disavowed by Onion writers, but it proved a teachable moment for the Onion's brain trust.
"We learned that it really helps to have control," says exec Hannah. "We sold the script, and the film was made by Fox (Searchlight). We realized that in order to do things right with our brand, we need to do it ourselves. We hadn't refined our voice in video at that point. We weren't on set. We were not producing or casting it."
In 2005, discussions began for what would become the online version of "Onion News Network." "It was a very expensive proposition, millions of dollars," adds Hannah. "But we thought, if we do this well and take the Onion's sensibility to video, someday TV studios will come knocking on our doors."
Some of the videos (as were some of the Onion's print stories) were mistaken for real news items, or became news. Sena recalls that one of her online reports — about President Obama's teleprompter failing while he was interacting with his family — was featured on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor." "My friends said, "How ironic — you're getting more prime-time action on Fox now that you've left."
The Onion's desire for autonomy was essentially accepted by both IFC and Comedy Central. Kent Alterman, an executive vice-president at Comedy Central, says, "The Onion obviously has such an established point of view and sensibility, and that's what we wanted. So we mainly give them free rein to do what they want."
As the Onion's media empire expands, Hannah doesn't rule out another movie. Graham's ambitions aren't quite so grand, though they do involve a certain blustery CNN personality who'd be perfect for "Onion News Network."
"We are totally open to hiring Wolf Blitzer," he says.
Where: Comedy Central
When: 10:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)