Is it possible for a US television station to be right-wing and funny?
That is the aim of a new entertainment channel that, with the help of 'Frasier' star Kelsey Grammer, is taking on the liberals
When he was the radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane, he was famed for his sympathetic ear. But now Kelsey Grammer, whose catchphrase in that hit sitcom was "I'm listening", has a rather different agenda: he has become the face and very audible voice of a new right-wing television outlet that aims to win back the airwaves from the liberal intelligentsia.
It may seem an odd time for Grammer to be burnishing his conservative credentials. He is making a much applauded plunge into Broadway as one half of a gay pairing in La Cage aux Folles, a production that might not appeal to every red-blooded Republican.
The new channel – which, unlike Fox, will focus on entertainment rather than current affairs – describes itself as tuned in to "pro-America, pro-business and pro-military sensibilities", and Grammer's early trailers hint at a tone that will not appeal any wider than that constituency. But then, that those not in the fold might be offended by more media terrain being given to conservatives to vent their views was predictable. It is often argued, after all, that the outsized influence of Rush Limbaugh on the radio and Glenn Beck on the television have propelled them to a place where they are the de facto leaders of the Republican Party in the United States, and thus of the anti-Barack Obama opposition.
So it is that one of the trailers for the RightNetwork now firing up YouTube precisely exploits the early expressions of outrage at the imminence of its birth from liberal opinionators like Keith Olbermann of MSNBC (which advertises its liberal credentials more honestly than Fox News does its conservative ones). "We may be on to something," the trailer concludes. "Just wait until we launch the network."
Exactly how weighty it will become – and funny – remains to be seen. Even its name might turn out to be a stretch. For now, the RightNetwork has just three shows on its roster, including a showcase for conservative stand-up comedians and a reality show about political neophytes on the right end of the spectrum running for office for the first time called Runners.
Early reports that it was being launched with support from Comcast, one of the most powerful and largest television cable companies, turned out to be false. (One of its main investors, Ed Snider, is involved in a joint venture with Comcast, but it has nothing to do with the RightNetwork). Indeed Comcast even went so far as to say it had no plans to give the RightNetwork space on its very expensive grid of channels. Tamil TV? Yes. Playboy Espanol? Certainly. The RightNetwork? Not yet.
At the start, the RightNetwork will exist on the web only. If it does reach cable television it will at first be as an on-demand service only. In other words, it won't appear on your television by simply punching numbers on the clicker. Fans will have to pay extra.
Still, the trailers, two of which are fronted by Grammer, are slick and, occasionally, even funny. If they are an indication of what is to come, the RightNetwork may have a future.
"Things that just aren't right," he begins in one after waving a large red flag bearing the single letter 'r' (for right, of course.) "Big government, more taxes, group hugs, cats on leashes, running in place, flightless birds, grown men tickle fights ... baby carrots, left-handed scissors, thousand dollar toilet seats, over spending ..." Grammer, in spiffy white Aertex T-shirt, adds a few more not-right peeves like, "bailouts for billionaires, partisan politics, dogs named Steven...Michael Moore in Speedos. Oh, dear God."
The best line in a clip of the comedy show, called Right 2 Laugh, comes from Evan Sayet, an established comedian who has long done well as a speaker on the conservative circuit. Offering thoughts on controversial proposals to give legitimate driving licences to illegal immigrants, he says it shouldn't be allowed if they are driving north. Licences for illegal aliens driving south, however, would be a fine idea.
Being a little bit offensive is allowed in political comedy, of course. Sayet knows the craft particularly well as a former writer for Bill Maher, whose perennially popular (and perennially left-leaning) half-hour show on HBO is precisely called Politically Incorrect.
Sayet and the creators of the new network may be thinking of Maher when they reflect that while the airwaves for political invective have for years been hogged by the right (Beck and Limbaugh), it is the left that has controlled broadcast political humour. Aside from Maher, the other most famous practitioner of the art, of course, is Jon Stewart, whose programme on Comedy Central, The Daily Show, has sometimes been touted as a substitute for real current affairs broadcasting on American television.
It does not take long travelling the by-ways of the US (or glimpsing Limbaugh's ratings) to know that the market for a right-wing alternative may be rich indeed. The timing may also be smart. A previous attempt at a right-wing alternative to The Daily Show et al, Fox's Half-Hour News Hour, crashed and burned, partly because it came out in the dying days of the Bush administration – when no-one particularly felt that the Republican party needed more representation. (Partly, it was because it wasn't very funny.)
But this is a different time. As Mr Obama approaches mid-term elections that threaten to clobber his party, his approval ratings have slumped. That there are conservatives out there who will appreciate the new service is hardly in question. Critics will also note that it is Fox that commands the cable news ratings today, not MSNBC.
"Fox News Channel is a very successful channel," says Lisa de Moraes, a critic with The Washington Post. "It's very targeted, and the people who watch Fox News Channel watch a great deal of television. So I think this is a niche that's worth trying."
As for what Grammer is up to exactly, Michael Feingold of the Village Voice says no one should care. This "is Kelsey Grammer's problem and nobody else's," he says. "If he wants to kiss a man passionately on stage eight times a week... and then wants to become a spokesman for a political group that includes many who are violently against gay marriage – why should that worry anyone?"
Barracking Barack Obama with gags
"Are there any Barack Obama fans in the audience tonight?... I didn't vote for Obama, but I did order one of those Obama coins that they advertised on TV. Because as any collector will tell you, a coin is worth a lot more when there's an obvious mistake on it."
Unnamed comedian from 'Right to Laugh' trailer, Right Network
"Now I am not as upset with Barack Obama as some others are. I know that people are upset that he bowed to the Saudi king, does this bother you? Isn't it possible that he didn't bow? Isn't it possible that what happened was the teleprompter fell over?"
Evan Sayet from 'Right to Laugh' trailer
"Police in Texas arrested a man who used the alias 'Barack Obama' while trying to steal money from 35 ATMs. Officials could tell something was up, when a guy named Barack Obama was seen taking money from banks instead of handing it out to them."
"That's pretty amazing, winning the Nobel Peace Prize... Ironically, his biggest accomplishment as President so far... winning the Nobel Peace Prize."
"People are kind of upset with British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward. Over the weekend, he was out on his yacht. And when President Obama found out that Tony Hayward was on his yacht, he was so angry, he missed a putt."
"Our President got to meet the Queen of England today. He gave her an iPod! That's quite an unusual gift from the President. Usually he gives out about $150m."
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