The show features actors playing news anchors reading a mix of fake news and jokes about real news — yet it airs on a real news channel.
“The Daily Show” and its acerbic host, Jon Stewart, make fun of the news and newsmakers (who, inexplicably, are still eager to appear on the show), but since it’s on Comedy Central, which exists to make fun of just about everything, it doesn’t seem like a stretch.
Then there’s “The ½ Hour News Hour,” which airs Sunday nights on Fox News. It’s the creation of Joel Surnow, co-creator (with Bob Cochran) of the political thriller “24,” which airs on Fox News’ corporate sibling, Fox Broadcasting Co.
The show, which premiered in February, features actors playing news anchors reading a mix of fake news and jokes about real news — yet it airs on a real news channel.
Fox News apparently isn’t worried about confusing viewers, even though Kurt Long and Jennifer Robertson — who play newsreaders Kurt McNally and Jennifer Lange — have appeared on such Fox News shows as “The O’Reilly Factor” (a special episode of “The ½ Hour News Hour” airs after “O’Reilly” on Wednesday).
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“Does it confuse people?” asks Bill Shine, senior vice president of programming for Fox News. “No. Look, we have to give our viewers a little more credit than that. They’re certainly very smart. They can figure that out. We introduce the actors as who they are, put up their names as to who they are and what they do … so, no, our audience gets that.
“We certainly thought about airing a show like this on a news channel before we actually aired it. In the end, we felt that it was something our audience would find funny and would accept. It’s a risk, but we have a whole history here of doing risky things.
“We also think it’s kind of fun. You’re about to go to bed and start another hard week. Have some fun; laugh a little.”
A little off-balance?
Fox News is often accused of leaning right of center, although its slogan proclaims it “fair and balanced.” Whatever side you support in that debate, it’s clear that “The ½ Hour News Hour” has a center-right slant.
“This was born,” says Surnow, a self-proclaimed conservative, “out of an interest in trying to find a way to do a comedy show, a political satire show, that skews from the right instead of the left. A lot of times you just look and say, ‘What’s not there? What’s not on the dial? What’s not available to an audience?’ “
The show was originally pitched for Fox Broadcasting, but after the network passed, Surnow says, “Through my relationships in the conservative community, I got to (Fox News Channel president) Roger Ailes, and Roger liked it enough to give us some money to do two episodes.
“They were successful. I don’t think they accomplished what we wanted the show to be, but there was enough in there for Roger to say, ‘OK, let’s give it a try.’ “
The “Daily” difference
“The ½ Hour News Hour” often has been compared to “The Daily Show,” which, to be fair, wasn’t quite the cultural phenomenon it is now when it premiered in 1996 with original host Craig Kilborn (Stewart arrived in 1999).
“First of all,” Surnow says, “we’re 100 percent scripted. That show does interviews. They’ll have guests, and they’ll rely on the power of their host to carry an act. They’ll have John McCain on the show. Everything we do is scripted.
“We didn’t want to be ‘The Daily Show.’ We wanted to do a comedy show. It uses news as its base. It’s part ‘Weekend Update’ from ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and part its own little hybrid.”
Interestingly, a former anchor for ‘Weekend Update,” comedian and radio talk-show host Dennis Miller, contributes video “rants” to “The ½ Hour News Hour.” It’s part of the show’s evolving stable of regular features, which includes faux commercials poking fun at causes supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The ACLU pieces are getting the most responses,” says writer and co-executive producer Ned Rice (“Real Time With Bill Maher,” “Politically Incorrect”). “The legal department goes over it so there’s no grounds for lawsuit. It’s factual. It’s gotten the most response on the Internet.”
Calling all conservatives
The show recently began recruiting local conservatives to join the studio audience, since they don’t represent a majority of political thinkers in Los Angeles.
“We live in Hollywood,” Long says, “where everyone’s so self-important.”
“It’s sort of like the Borg,” quips Robertson.
As to whether those not of the conservative persuasion might enjoy the show, Long says, “I’m from New England, where everybody’s superliberal.”
“I’m from Canada,” Robertson says. “They’re beyond liberal in Canada.”
“They watch,” Long continues, “and they’re like, ‘Ah, you know what, it’s actually funny.’ “
“That’s why we don’t feel the pressure of Fox News,” Robertson says, “because we’re not delivering you news. We’re not the information source. We’re the source of the ha-ha.”
“Why should it hurt the liberal side?” Long says. “That really gets me. I have a lot of liberal friends who get upset. ‘It’s not for you, then. Don’t listen to it. It’s entertainment.’ “
“There are a lot of decorating shows I don’t agree with,” Robertson says.
“They’re not for you,” Long says.
“I let them decorate in their style,” Robertson says. “If I deem it gaudy, it’s fine.”